Whether we like it or not, a general election is looming on the horizon. Whenever it is and whatever the circumstances, one thing is certain: we won’t be voting online. As usual, most of us will exercise our democratic right be walking down the road to the local polling station, probably in a school or local community centre. And once inside we’ll be checked off by a member of the polling staff – giving a name and address is enough (except in Northern Ireland where you need photo ID). Then we’ll be given a physical ballot paper in order to mark an X in pencil against the name of our favoured candidate, before dropping it into a box. The only other means of voting is by post, or proxy vote – both of which have to be organised well ahead of time, so fine for people who know well in advance they won’t make it on the day, but pointless for people who have last-minute issues or just aren’t as well organised. As customer experiences go, the way we vote doesn’t match the rest of our digitally-enabled lives.
So, when we can do pretty much anything else in life online, why can’t we vote in a general, or even local election? And will it ever be possible? The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is complicated.
Back in 2014 the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee recommended that the government should run online voting pilots in the next parliament "with a view to all electors having the choice of voting online at the 2020 general election". However the committee itself was ‘not set up to investigate in detail the issues of security and the mechanisms for delivering that’ and little seems to have happened since to move the situation forward. It would take years to properly research how such a system might be set up, and clearly the chances of online voting this year or next are zero.
Those security issues are manifold. Voters need to have their identity verified – though you could argue that the current system of simply turning up and quoting your name and address isn’t exactly infallible. But voters also need to be anonymous. And one thing digital technology is very, very good at is leaving a trail. Systems can be in place to anonymise voter, but there’s always the worry that hackers could find a way to trace individual votes back to individuals. Then there’s the counting. Again, however secure the system is, security experts say that the possibility of interference from hackers, possibly state-sponsored, remains. And hackers might not even have to change votes; a distributed denial of service attack could flood the system with so much traffic that the website goes down and thousands of people are denied their vote. Who wants to be the politician who pushes the button on digital voting if it’s possible the whole thing could be a disaster?
But still, perhaps this is being a bit defeatist. A few countries do offer electronic voting of one sort or another and believe they have solved the issues, or at least that the risks are smaller than using the old-fashioned system of paper votes.
Estonia has permanent online voting at a national level, ironically one of the results of a determination to strengthen technology and security after a cyberattack by Russia in 2007. Every citizen and resident carries an electronic identity card and a card scanner to authenticate their identity when voting. They’re linked to a digital signature and more recent cards include a copy of the owner’s fingerprints. The system has been deemed to be largely successful, with a third of voters voting electronically in 2015. But it’s is not without its critics – there is no way for an individual to check their vote has been cast correctly afterwards, and a number of security experts maintain that the system could be hacked and votes changed after the event. Also, Estonia is, of course, a small country of just over 1.3 million people. With serious worries over Russia’s desire to influence and interfere in British (and American) election results, there’s no doubt that a UK general election happening electronically for the first time might represent an irresistible target.
In Brazil, voting is electronic, but like a number of other countries they use ‘voting machines’ so people still have to visit a designated place to cast their vote, rather than being able to do it anywhere they have internet access. The country brought in electronic voting more than 20 years ago, largely because of the logistical challenge and opportunities for fraud during the country’s complex election process. India also has voting machines, 1.6 million of them, each recording up to 2,000 votes. Again, the machines have been found to reduce fraud and save time and money, though some experts have questioned how secure they really are. In a nicely old-fashioned touch the machines are sealed with wax at the end of voting in a bid to prevent tampering.
In the UK, some campaigners believe turnout would rise, particularly amongst young people, if voting could be carried out online. A 2015 report found that 66% of young people were more likely to vote if they could do so online. Maybe a move online would boost turnout from 2017’s 68.8% – how many times have we all asked friends and colleagues if they voted only to be told ‘Oh I meant to but I was late this morning and then I went out after work and forgot’? 30 million people who’ve chosen not to have a say in the future of the UK is a lot – perhaps this isn’t the time to mention the ‘B’ word.
In our digital world it seems ridiculous that not only can’t we vote in a general election online, but we’re absolutely nowhere near it being possible, with no current timeline for future implementation. Sadly an understandably high degree of caution, serious security issues and the existence of players who would dearly like to damage UK democracy are spoiling it for us. Perhaps once more countries adopt electronic voting there will be more of a will to change the system. Let’s face it the current UK government have enough on their plate at the moment – they’re in no position to be pushing the button on electronic voting just yet.