Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Electronic Voting - Are we missing the point?

I have just read an interesting piece on the Total Politics website by Melanie Batley about the electronic voting, or to be more precise about the potential for it being introduced in the UK. This obviously isn't the first article written on the subject and with all due respect to Melanie Batley, there are far more comprehensive articles out there explaining the in's and out's of e-voting.

What nearly all the pieces I've read on this subject share is a focus on the mechanics of e-voting - whether we can do it and do it securely enough - and I, too, shall pay attention to that aspect. However, what most of the articles tend to ignore is the question of whether it's right to make voting easier. The answer isn't all that simple, at least not for me, and so I think it deserves a little attention drawn to it.

First, the mechanics. I am the sort of individual who can't understand why almost every interaction with the government, or indeed any business, is not electronic. I spent much of my career transferring processes and procedures into digital, electronic systems and produced some staggering efficiency as a result. However, not once did I ever design or adopt an electronic system that I felt provided a completely incorruptible audit trail. When it comes to using electronic systems over traditional systems there is nearly always some form of payoff. In most cases, the gain in efficiency vastly outweighs any increases in risk and as such, the electronic version is favoured.

In the article on Total Politics, a common example is used to highlight where advocates of e-voting feel the government has already accepted that electronic processes are safe and secure enough - that of being able to complete and submit tax returns online. Unfortunately, the comparison fails because the cold hard fact is that, in audit trail terms, tax is not as important as voting. There can be no room for error when it comes to voting because of the potential damage any corruption can do.

The sure fire way to prevent any deliberate corruption from outside sources is to not have any parts of the voting process exposed to any external network. This measure doesn't entirely mean no e-voting (there would be no internet voting but you'd still use some form of electronic interface at the polling station), but it becomes less about making it a better experience for voters and more about making it an easier process for the electoral office.

In saying this, I am not against e-voting because of the mechanics. I'm sure at some point very soon, we will find a solution that meets all the audit requirements. No, I am against e-voting because frankly, I've no desire to make voting any easier for the electorate.

Do we really think voting is difficult? You get yourself put on the electoral register (for free) and when the elections are called, you get a little card through the door telling you where to go, when to go there and what to do. On the day of the election you have all day and all evening to turn up, hand in your little card, write an 'X' against your chosen candidate and pop it in the box. It takes no more effort than registering with a library and then using that Library.

Crucially, with that minimal effort exerted you have played your incredibly important part in the governance of our country. We have heard much in the last few days about 'responsibilities' and the supposed abdication of these responsibilities. I would contend that the most critical of these responsibilities that we have seen abandoned is that of taking part in the electoral process. I wrote just before the local elections in May that the responsibility for governing is on all of us and it is my belief that there should be some effort required to vote.

I honestly don't want a system to cater for someone who thinks that the current amount of effort needed to vote is just too much. If they really thought democracy was just too much effort previously then frankly, I'm not wild about us bowing to their indifference. Just to be clear, this isn't about voter engagement. If politicians successfully engaged with potential voters, then having to physically go to a polling station wouldn't be any sort of obstacle.

I appreciate there are cases where, with all the will in the world, getting to a polling station is a genuine obstacle, particularly for the elderly, house bound and for some disabilities. In these circumstances though, we should be making extra efforts to accommodate them specifically, rather than lowering the effort level for everyone. I'm sure many will disagree, as is their want, but for me, I want people voting because they want to, because they no it's important and because they recognise it is the right thing to do, and not because we have removed all excuses not to.

1 comment:

  1. Surely the main argument for e-voting is not that it makes it easier to vote, but that it makes it easier (and more accurate) to count?