Turnout in elections has been declining steadily in the last few decades, and many commentators and experts have sought to offer solutions to this. For some, the Australian system of mandatory voting is attractive, offering a ‘none of the above’ option for those who want to spoil and imposing fines on people who skip polling day. Others suggest lowering the voting age will increase participation in younger people and therefore increase turnout year by year. Some believe the best solution is to ditch paper ballot papers altogether and offer online voting instead.
On smaller scales in the UK, such as in students’ union elections, online voting has been done. But rolling it out nationwide presents some big issues which cannot be ignored.
Firstly, the benefits. As the younger generations become mobile-first tech-obsessives, it seems logical to transfer voting into a method they ‘get’. People are more likely to vote the easier it is, and downloading an app and ticking a box is certainly easier than getting to a polling station.
It would also probably work out a lot cheaper, and counts would be far quicker. Any politics junkie knows that now, the counts are done by hundreds of workers across the country, who physically separate, count and then check every paper ballot paper that comes in. This takes hours and huge amounts of manpower. Not so if you just have to close a voting portal and click refresh on the latest votes.
But what about the problems? Voting in the UK is done in secret, to make sure that no party or person can have undue influence over the vote of another. But what if you were to do it at home? With someone over your shoulder? That could allow people to exert influence and could mean votes aren’t genuine. Of course, there are problems with this already in terms of postal votes, but that is on a much smaller scale than mass online voting would be.
We also have security issues. Although we bank online, and shop online, the methods needed to ensure only one vote was being registered per person could prove tricky. It’s possible that someone could download an app on multiple devices, for example, so we would need an ultra secure way to prevent that.
And what if the whole system was hacked? We have seen how cyber terrorist groups can cause chaos and problems in company systems before, and an election would be the opportunity to wreck havoc on a nation.
Other countries have implemented online voting, such as Estonia, where they saw a small rise in turnout the first time it was used in a parliamentary election. But, the chief of staff says that because voting turnout can depend on so much more than just ease of casting the ballot, it is hard to compare the figures pre and post introduction of online voting. He also said that the real difference is made to those who have disabilities, or live a distance from the polling station, or are elderly, rather than the young. In many ways, our postal and proxy votes help take care of those concerns.
Online voting definitely should not be ruled out completely, but it is clear a lot more work would have to be done before it could confidently be rolled out to the electorate.