How Would Electronic Voting Affect British Elections?

“Why can’t we just vote online?” ask so many people who have become familiar with the instant digital world. It’s a good question – why can’t we? Is it possible that the UK would introduce electronic voting? If so, how would it work? And what impact would it have?

Read on for the answers to all the questions surrounding electronic voting.

A new way of voting

Electronic voting wouldn’t be the first time voting methods have changed. Absent voting (by post) was temporarily introduced in 1918 and 1945 to allow soldiers to vote in the post-war periods when many were still serving overseas. It was extended to the physically incapacitated and certain occupations in 1948 and eventually to all civilians in 2000.

So, what’s stopping us doing the same with electronic voting? After all, we do shopping, banking and a big chunk of business and personal communication online. Electronic voting or ‘e-voting’ systems would make voting instant and completely effortless. It would make it even easier for people to have their say – eliminating that short walk out in the evening that seems to put so many reluctant voters off.

Voter engagement

Would this instant effort-free voting method actually translate to a greater turnout? Logically, you would assume so. Estonia has been using e-voting since 2005, with the first parliamentary election in 2007. Here are the voter turnout figures before and after e-voting was introduced:

  •          1999 (before): 57.4%
  •          2003 (before): 58.2% – increase: 0.8%
  •          2007 (after): 61.9% – increase: 3.7%
  •          2011 (after): 63.5% – increase: 1.6%
  •          2015 (after): 64.2% – increase: 0.7%

It’s clear the turnout has risen after e-voting’s introduction, and continued to rise. What’s not so clear is whether there is a link. The rise of 3.7% in the first election using e-voting would suggest it had some part to play, but data from the Estonian National Electoral Committee shows that only 5.5% of votes were cast online. This rose to 24.3% by 2011 and 30.5% in 2015. The conclusion? It’s not clear whether it had a direct impact, but what is clear is that plenty – nearly a third – of voters are choosing to use the new method.

When it comes to voter engagement, it’s also important to consider the way society is moving. Every new voter turning 18 has grown up with technology around them. They’re acclimatised to it. Soon enough, the vast majority of voters will be millennials or younger. It’s much harder to get people interested in politics when it’s centred around a paper ballot that – to many – seems completely archaic.

Counting up

Regardless of turnout, introducing electronic voting makes the whole process quicker without a doubt. Electronic voting software is equipped with sophisticated vote-counting tools that give instant and accurate results. If all votes were electronic, there would be no need for long counts and recounts. But even just having e-voting as an option reduces the counting burden by a decent amount – nearly a third in Estonia. That translates to a reduced cost for elections on the whole as staff wouldn’t be required for as many hours.

It would also have an impact on spoilt ballots. While some voters intentionally spoil their ballots, there are a number of accidental spoilt ballots. Unclear intention or multiple candidate selections can lead to ballots being discarded as spoilt. But on a programmed e-voting system, voters would have to make their intention clear to process their vote.

Problems with e-voting

There are clearly several positives to e-voting, but what about the negatives?

Most of them can be summed up with one word – security. As with all things online, there are worries of hacking. In the three elections using e-voting to date, however, Estonia hasn’t encountered any issues of e-vote hacking. As software develops further, this becomes even more unlikely.

There’s also a worry of manufacturer bias. Much like the suspicions around biased vote counters, there is an idea that e-voting software manufacturers could have political ties and attempt to fabricate election results. But, again much like the suspicions of biased vote counters, this is highly improbable.

E-voting = E-canvassing? 

It isn’t just turnout that e-voting could affect. A switch to electronic votes could see significant changes in the way voters are targeted. Knowing that the public will be casting their vote online, parties would surely aim to target them using this medium. Social media campaigning was stepped up during the 2017 election, with the main parties engaging with and advertising on relatively new platforms such as Snapchat as well as the likes of Twitter and Facebook. This kind of canvassing would likely take over if electronic voting became the norm.

Looking to the future…

It’s all well and good discussing the potential ins and outs of electronic voting – but will it ever happen? So far, it’s only been on the lips of opposition politicians. Labour’s Ed Miliband reportedly promised to trial the idea during his 2015 election campaign. And current leader Jeremy Corbyn has spoken about introducing online voting in elections “if we can be sure of its reliability”.

The Conservatives have displayed some desire to move online, however. In 2014, during the Lib Dem coalition, voter registration was updated to allow members of the public to register online. Using their name, date of birth, address and National Insurance number, people can now register “in just 3 minutes”.

Phasing it in?

Online voting systems have been trialled in the past too – albeit locally. In 2007, 12 local councils including Sheffield, Sunderland and Swindon were approved to trial an electoral pilot scheme for the 3rd May local elections. It included the option to vote online or by phone. However, the relatively late approval – in January the same year – meant that the results were pretty underwhelming.

Just 4% of voters chose to use either the phone or the internet to vote in Sheffield, for instance. The Electoral Commission suggests the results may have been limited by a pre-registration period, as well as the separate 96 hour voting period for online and phone, which many people were not aware of. In the future, if we really want to realise e-voting’s potential, it’s going to need more time and a fairer trial.