Love tech, hate online voting

In the wake of the UK’s referendum on EU membership, there has been a lot happening in politics. One of those things is the launch of a new movement – it’s not a political party – called More United. If the name sounds familiar, then that’s because it’s based on a phrase said by the late Jo Cox, MP.

The intention behind More United is to encourage people to support MPs – of any party – who share a core set of principles. There are examples of those on the website, with fairly broad brush outlines.

There’s also a more in-depth Policy Details page, which has some stuff on it that I think is good – like electoral reform – and some that I think could be more damaging, including the introduction of online voting.

But you write about tech, you love gadgets? Why don’t you want to vote online?” I imagine some people saying.

Largely because it’s unfair is my answer. One of the key things that most people can probably agree on after the referendum is that there are a lot of people in the UK who feel that their voices aren’t heard by politicians.

And I think that online voting has the potential, in some cases, to make that situation even worse, not to resolve it.

Here’s why:

With online voting, you need a computer (or perhaps a suitable smartphone) and a connection to the internet. You can vote whenever it’s convenient for you. You can do it while you’re rushing to work, or sat in front of the computer when you get home after a long day. It won’t matter if it’s raining, or snowing, or the trains are all screwed up. You can still vote.

And, by and large, that’s because you’re living a comfortable middle class life, and able to afford a computer and an internet connection.

Many people can’t – and they are some of the same people who have been ignored by politicians for decades. You can say “Oh, you can get broadband for £10 a month, and a computer for £100” but if you’re living on benefits, or even relying on a food bank to keep the kids fed, that’s a luxury.

So, there’s a very real risk that online voting actually creates two classes of voter. There are the nice comfortable ones like you and me, who can vote at our convenience. And there are the poor (and perhaps the elderly) who still have to queue up in the rain to cast a vote the old fashioned way, or queue up at the library to use a computer.

It could even get worse. What if, under budget pressure, councils cut back on the number of polling stations they provide “because most people are doing it online anyway” ? There could be a risk that some of those without computers will have to travel further to vote, lowering turnout still more.

It doesn’t have to happen like that, of course. But the solution is universal provision of some sort of access to the voting system.

It might, perhaps, be a cheap terminal – think of the old French Minitel – that is available to every household free, which can be used for voting and other state services, like benefit applications, or getting a driving licence.

Maybe it could be a deal with mobile phone companies so that even phones with no credit on them can still be used to access the online voting system.

There might be other ways. But unless you do ensure equal access to the voting system, it really doesn’t matter if it’s an online one or not. Simply introducing online voting without ensuring equal access to it won’t bring the country closer together. It will just push some voices further into the darkness, where they won’t be heard.

For more on online voting, see this piece I wrote for The Register in 2015.

2 Replies to “Love tech, hate online voting”

  1. I don’t believe that online voting will increase turnout very much, and I agree that it will break a rift between those who have access to the Internet and those who don’t.

    I am more concerned about ballot security than turnout. All online voting challenges hackers to break in and affect the results.

    The compromise is machine-readable paper ballots. Just feed them into the reader and counts will be much quicker. There’s an audit trail (the paper ballot exists and can be checked against the record) and challenged ballots can be examined quickly.

  2. I agree – with both the article and the comment above.
    EVerywhere we see “tech” being used in the vote, we also see controversy. Whether it’s legal fights about the status of a hanging chad (you’d think that one would be simple enough) to vendors (Diebold springs to mind) fighting hard to avoid any outside audit of their systems (which IIRC were later found to be as full of holes as a swiss cheese).
    Our paper vote system may be “old fashioned”, but as noted above it has certain elements that make it very suitable – not only is it fair and reliable, but it can easily be seen to be fair and reliable.
    Go electronic and you have to be really sure of it’s accuracy – the referendum showed that if machines could be subverted to change just one or two votes in a hundred (probably undetectable without some sort of non-electronic audit trail and a lot of effort) could completely change the outcome.

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