THE BLOG

Britain's Outdated Voting System Risks Leaving Millions Voiceless in the EU Referendum

31/05/2016 17:17 | Updated 01 June 2016

The EU referendum is arguably the most important British vote in a generation. The outcome, which will have far reaching consequences for the country, is on a knife-edge. Yet our old-fashioned voting system risks silencing whole groups of voters who deserve to have their say.

Participation in UK elections has been on a downward trend for decades. In this year's London Mayoral election turnout didn't even reach 50%. For many people from all walks of life the voting system is outdated, hard to navigate and even alienating. Having to register weeks in advance for a postal vote or being obliged to find and visit a polling station at set times is off-putting and time consuming. The reality is that too often our antiquated electoral system prevents people exercising their democratic right.

When it comes to the referendum, this could have some particularly worrisome implications.

Firstly, it is likely to put off many of the groups who will be most directly impacted by the outcome. These groups could be crucial to which way the vote goes given that, according to numerous polls, they are more likely to vote to remain.

Take young people. The turnout among 18-24 year olds could be depressed by the perfect storm of bureaucracy and poor timing. According to reports, the switch to Individual Electoral Registration has seen huge numbers of young people drop off the register - campaign group Bite the Ballot estimate 30% of this age group are not registered to vote.The date of the vote falls after most university finals and in the middle of Glastonbury Festival so many will not be in their polling districts. Our survey, conducted after last year's general election, showed one in three were unsure how to use a postal vote - the lowest of any age group (and lower still when asked about voting 'by proxy'). This all means that the generation who will live with the fallout of the referendum for decades and decades may be disproportionately underrepresented on polling day.

Our outdated voting system also risks disenfranchising overseas voters. More than one million Britons living in other EU countries will be directly impacted by a leave vote yet it would be hard to invent a harder way for them to cast their ballot. The Electoral Commission is now warning those abroad that there may not be enough time for postal ballots to make it back in time instead suggesting they vote by proxy.

Secondly, pen and paper ballots are the slowest to process, easiest to manipulate and therefore most at risk of fraud and error. The elections in May offered a scary glimpse of what we can expect on 23 June - missing votes, insecure paper votes and unintentionally spoilt ballots. In a tight, nationwide vote count fraud and error at the margins could have a significant impact on the outcome.

It doesn't need to be like this. Technology - whether simple online registration, electronic polling machines or online voting - can make voting easier for everyone. A 2015 poll by campaign group Webroots showed that 55% of people in the UK want to be able to vote online and our own polling found it would make 57% of 18-24 year olds more likely to vote.

It can also reduce error and spoilt ballots. In this year's London Mayoral election nearly 50,000 ballots in the first round alone were rejected meaning that many Londoners who believe that they voted in this election in fact didn't. Electronic voting would ensure that voters cannot mismark their ballots and detect administrative errors making sure that every intended vote does indeed count.

Before voting people of course first need to register. Whilst the government's move to online registration is welcome more needs to be done to make the process easier. For example, we could use technology to enable voters to register on the day itself. There has been much focus on registration with politicians and campaigners alike urging people to make their voices heard. This is hugely important but must go hand in hand with efforts to make voting as easy and accessible as possible to ensure that those signed up to vote actually do so.

So why isn't technology already transforming how we vote? Last year, the Speaker's Commission on Digital Democracy recommended the introduction of online voting as an option by 2020, but there has been no tangible progress since. This can only be explained by a lack of political will and misinformation about non-existent security risks. Internet voting has been used successfully around the world in elections from Estonia to the US. What's more does anyone seriously think that putting a piece of paper in an envelope and leaving it to the twists and turns of the British Postal system is more secure than casting a vote through a system which uses higher security protocols than online banking?

This isn't about getting rid of polling stations or the drama of election night but harnessing the power of available technological tools to make casting and counting votes easier and quicker. This matters. It matters for trust in the result and the future of our democracy.

If whole groups are not enabled to vote easily in important decisions such as the EU referendum not only is the legitimacy of the outcome undermined but we risk losing whole groups to the democratic process. Voting is a habit, the more you do it, the more likely you are to do so in the future.

We may have left it too late for this year's referendum but this year's lessons should serve as a spur to action to harness the power of technology to the benefit of democracy so that we don't make the same mistakes in 2020.

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