Whether it's down to the rise of social media, or the more recent Corbyn effect, UK election turnout has been steadily rising over the last few years, hitting 68.7% at the last General Election. Great news one might think, until we look a bit further back to the 70s, 80s and 90s, when election turnouts were consistently within the 70-80% bracket, hitting the heady heights of 78.8% in the election of February 1974. Take a longer term view and its clear there's been a decline in voter numbers, arguably caused by politicians' inability to engage the electorate, and failure to keep up in a digital world. Indeed, although technology exists which would potentially enfranchise many more voters, the UK Government has been slow to put things in place which would remove the barriers many face when casting a secure and secret vote.
Back in August last year, I submitted a blog which focused on equal voting rights for those with disabilities, blindness or partial sight. It focused on a single question. Why, in today's digital world, do we rely almost entirely on analogue voting processes, when the technology exists to ensure there is inclusivity for all? In other words, when those with disabilities use technology to enhance and enrich their lives in so many ways, surely the option to vote online should be available now - what are we waiting for? As Nicky Gavron AM rightly points out in a recent report by Webroots Democracy: "It is frankly unacceptable that we have a situation in which hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of vision impaired and disabled voters in the UK are unable to vote independently and in secret, when in other countries they are able to do so."
Webroots Democracy's report - 'Inclusive Voting, Improving access to elections with digital democracy' - talks about the human right to be able to cast a secret and independent vote and outlines the barriers currently faced, be they accessibility to polling stations or having to rely on proxy or postal voting, neither of which offers complete assurance or secrecy. The option to cast a secure and private vote isn't new technology. Indeed, it has been available for many years and, as the Webroot Democracy report rightly points out, is utilised by governments around the world including, but not restricted to, Australia, Estonia and Switzerland. When it comes to security, there is more than 18 years of accumulated R&D, cryptography, verifiability and auditability behind e-voting technology - so why is there resistance to online voting and why is it taking so long to put in place?
Additionally, we know there is demand for voting technology from those with disabilities worldwide. Scytl has, for example, implemented online voting capabilities for internal elections at the Barcelona Municipal Institute for Persons with Disabilities. Similarly, in New South Wales, Australia, online voting was introduced after the issue of inaccessibility was taken to court. Online voting was introduced in Australia for visually impaired and later expanded to include expatriate voters.
Clearly the UK Government has a long way to go in order to improve accessibility. It must be a priority and not the 'afterthought' outlined in the Inclusive Voting report. I welcome the recommendations given by Webroots Democracy which includes the urgent need to "initiate pilots for online voting as a matter of priority in the new Parliament, with a view to an online voting option being in place for the next UK General Election", as well as a call for the "Equality and Human Rights Commission (to) explore whether or not the existing voting systems is in breath of the Human Rights Act 1998".
Any further delay to offering online voting for those with disabilities, blindness or partial sight, along with other recommendations made by Webroots Democracy around registering to vote and accessing information on the election, parties and policies, reinforces the conclusion that these groups are merely an afterthought when it comes to including and enfranchising the electorate. Not only this but online voting comes with huge advantages including a faster and more accurate vote counting process, prevention of human errors like over or under counting, multi-language support, greater convenience, better engagement from digital natives and the environmental benefit of reducing reliance on paper-based systems.
In an increasingly digital world where demand for online services continues unabated in all walks of life, government and public sector organisations need to embrace cyber voting as standard, providing a complimentary channel to traditional paper and postal voting.