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It’s time to reimagine our dated democracy and let people vote online

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In light of a new study by thinktank WebRoots Democracy, Areeq Chowdhury argues that we should be using online voting as a way to boost turnout and cut election costs

Voting with pencil, paper, and boxes was a revolutionary idea in the 19th century and made use of the latest technology. However, times have changed, the system is dated, and the moment for the next democratic disruption has come.

Countries around the world such as Australia, Estonia, and India have sought to modernise their voting systems by embracing the Internet and trialling remote online voting, yet we in the UK have adopted a traditionalist position holding tight to a democratic system designed in 1872. The mother of Parliaments is tired, and the children of democracy must reimagine a new way of doing things.

When I was younger, like many British Asian children, if ever I got 98% in an exam at school, a “well done” from my parents was often qualified with “what happened to the other 2%?” This, I believe, is the approach we should take with our voting system, the system that underpins our democracy. Unfortunately, our exam marks are far worse, and more often than not, undeserving of a “well done”.

Our best result in recent times was a 72% voter turnout in the 2016 EU referendum. “What a fantastic turnout” the sofa pundits proclaimed. The 54% voter turnout amongst young people in the 2017 snap General Election was hastily labelled a “youthquake”. How low our standards and ambitions have fallen. What happened to the 12.9m people that did not vote in 2016? What can we do to reach out to the 46% of young people that didn’t turn out in 2017? To be frank, in most elections, we’re in the bottom set. 9 times out of 10 our 20,000 elected politicians win on turnouts of less than 50%.

Rather than channelling all our energies on reforms like identity checks at polling stations, we need to adopt pragmatic changes and reimagine our dated democracy.

Digital democracy thinktank WebRoots Democracy has published a new study today, backed by cross-party politicians, highlighting how online voting could boost voter turnout by 4.7m and cut the cost-per-vote by 26%. It also finds that voting online would be the method of choice for those aged 18 to 50. But these aren’t the only returns on investment. Our previous research has outlined how online voting would enfranchise voters with vision impairments and disabilities, enable access to elections for the Armed Forces abroad, and educate voters about the representatives they are being asked to elect.

The value of this should not be understated. The risks, unfortunately, are often overstated and encourage us to cling on to a system that deters thousands of overseas citizens, hundreds of thousands of disabled people, and millions of young people from taking part in the democratic process. Our 2016 report on the cyber-security challenges associated with online voting describes, at length, various new technologies and processes which could be adopted to reduce the risk of attacks and vastly improve transparency over the electoral process. For years now, it has been tried and tested in Government elections in continents across the world. Even here, in Britain, our multinational corporations and political parties have online voting systems in place for their own votes, whether those are critical shareholder votes or the election of a party leader and potential future Prime Minister. If it’s good enough for those at the top of society, should it not be deemed good enough for we the people?

For the first time, our report out today shines a clear light on just how analogue, archaic, and antiquated our voting system truly is. For a national election, £18.5m is spent staffing polling stations, £6.3m is spent on thousands of man hours hand-counting paper ballots, and £3m is spent to pay people to tear open postal vote envelopes. £32,000 is spent on more than 312,000 pencils.

In an era where coins have been replaced by cash, cash has been replaced with cards, and cards have been replaced by contactless smartphone payments, shouldn’t we be aiming to be a little more innovative? Clinging to the status quo will only maintain a failing system and ensure we relinquish our title as the pioneers of modern democracy.

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Areeq Chowdhury is the founder and chief executive of the digital democracy think tank, WebRoots Democracy. He tweets at @AreeqChowdhury.


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