Data and Democracy

Hunting for a solution? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

It seems apt that it was at this week’s ‘digital hustings’ for the Conservative Party leadership that Jeremy Hunt unilaterally came out in favour of online voting. Or at least, that is what elements of the press and Twitterati reported. What Hunt actually said was (slightly) more nuanced than a straightforward endorsement:

“The big innovation that we need is to introduce online voting…if we can book out holidays online, surely we can find a way that is fool proof to have online voting, and that is the way the world is going, and I think that would encourage much more participation in our democracy.”

There are four things to unpack in that statement that illustrate some core concerns about using the internet to help run elections.

1) Voting should be more like booking a holiday

Voting should not be like booking a holiday. Booking a holiday online requires you to input sensitive, traceable, personal information (like your card details, and name and address) online. The company must be able to identify you in order to follow up on your payment. This is not, however, desirable for an election. Whilst electoral register data is available (Although the type and accessibility of data this contains changes reasonably frequently), digitising the voting process risks undermining the principle of the secret ballot. This opens the door to electoral fraud.

We should also ask ourselves if we really want private companies administering our elections. How would they be held to account? What happens if people decide they don’t trust the company? If there’s a problem with your hotel room, you can get a refund. How would you refund an election? For private companies, elections are a consumer product. Some are offering Democracy-as-Ipod, with e-voting machines that come in “classic” or “premium” models. Should we have to choose between classic or premium democracy?

2) We can have a ‘fool proof’ online voting system

Existing statutory e-voting systems, most notably in Estonia, have been criticised for being insecure. The Netherlands stopped using e-voting machines in 2007 because they could be hacked within 30 seconds of entering a polling booth. Norway discontinued its i-voting trials in 2014, citing security concerns. The UK Electoral Commission has made serious criticisms of the e-counting hardware and software used in the London General Assembly Elections in every assessment of them it has ever done.

Put simply, the technology isn’t there. We shouldn’t turn our democracy into a user testing exercise for private companies. The risk is electoral outcomes that are decided by glitches in code or server security, rather than voters.

3) Online voting would encourage political participation

Enhancing political participation, particularly amongst people for whom the act of voting can be problematic (for example, people with disabilities), is a net positive for our democracy and a noble goal in itself. Further research about how to do this should be encouraged, and it seems likely that modern technology has a part to play.

Currently though, there is no academic consensus about whether e-voting encourages turnout. The limited number of studies makes it difficult to characterise. However, a recent Norwegian trial found no increase in aggregate turnout. In addition, it found that young people (an oft cited target demographic for e-voting) actually preferred walking to the polling station as it felt like a rite of passage for entering adulthood.

Just because your child might like playing Xbox, doesn’t mean they want to ‘play democracy’ on an Xbox.

4) “That is the way the world is going”

This statement assumes that there is a public appetite for elections to go digital.

The level of support of online elections depends on who you ask and what question you ask them (for example, conducting an *online poll* about *online elections* is likely to suggest an unrepresentative level of support, unless you do some reasonably complex sample weighting). The Electoral Commission however, in its 2017 post general election assessment found strong support for the way that the election had been administered. For example:

– 79% of respondents thought the election was well run (down from 91% in 2015).
– 98% of voters thought that the ballot paper was easy to complete.
– 84% of polling station voters were satisfied with the process of voting.
– 80% of postal voters were satisfied with the process of voting.
– 89% of candidates were satisfied with the administration of the election in their constituency.

This is not to say that elements of election administration could not be improved (for example, electoral registration is an issue). But let’s put these statistics into context. This was a national statutory election for which administrators had less than two months to prepare. If a commercial organisation had these levels of customer satisfaction after such an event, they would be cracking open the champagne.

So yes, let’s work out how to make it easier for all members of the electorate to vote. But we also need to encourage a political landscape that allows for a more equitable relationship between citizens and government. There are plenty of initiatives to encourage meaningful political engagement from a civic public: from citizen’s juries, to more localised economic and municipal models through to proportional representation and an independent Yorkshire (although some of these are more likely to be realised than others). In the meantime, the medium of our electoral system – people, pencils, and paper – should be left well alone.

In a world of uncertainty, electoral interference, and waning confidence in our democratic institutions, electronic voting is a surefire way to add to our problems. So please Mr Hunt – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.