The Blog

Digital Voting Can Wait - It's Our Politics That Needs a Digital Upgrade

It is, we are told, the most unpredictable election in several generations, with an endless variety of possible outcomes being outlined -- and most of us couldn't care less. The parade of politicians telling us what we want to hear is met by a ripple of disinterest and apathy. Surely this means our democracy is broken?

It is, we are told, the most unpredictable election in several generations, with an endless variety of possible outcomes being outlined - and most of us couldn't care less. The parade of politicians telling us what we want to hear is met by a ripple of disinterest and apathy. Surely this means our democracy is broken?

All would be well, if only we could get people voting - can't we energise the democratic act via smartphones?

Maybe not this time.

This year, you won't die wondering if someone will ever write a piece pondering on whether this will be the first proper digital election, or for some high-end thinkers (and one mumbling fool) to sit down in hallowed halls and debate the -- this week at the Digital Leaders Annual Lecture. We will debate whether the technologies we use every day would be the ones to use to get democracy out of the sick bed, and people will have more erudite thoughts than me, but we already know the answer, in the UK at least -- that on the day itself, we will wander down to the local primary school and use a stubby pencil to put a cross in a box on a piece of paper. That's how digital our election will be.

Pursuing digital democracy misses the point, however well intentioned and thought-through. The democratic process may be a troublingly minority sport, but it's not in crisis. The democratic act is a private one, the act of voting isn't especially arduous and there's no great driving need to digitise a perfectly adequate process. Democracy, the actual exercising of the vote, is private - it is politics that is public, and it is politics that needs a digital upgrade.

We have a political culture that seems mired in the sort of issues that you get when it politics is delivered by a self-selecting elite of professional politicians whose life experience is in PR, lobbying and research; scoring points off each other in a great game they've been involved with even before they knew what a PPE degree an Oxford actually was.

That disillusion is an opportunity missed, leaving us with a huge number of voters who are digital natives, who run their lives off their mobile phones through social apps, but who are they are not creating any level of demand for the transfer of that technology to the political arena. The very people we want to be engaged in politics are using that tech to engage their minds elsewhere - and as a result, In 2010 just 44% of people aged 18 to 24 voted in Britain's general election, compared with 65% of people of all ages.

This is not a feckless generation - these people drink less, take fewer drugs, volunteer more and are better educated than their predecessors. Yet they don't want to waste their time on politicians and party politics- perhaps because this is also a generation yet to see itself as stakeholders in the UK - marrying later, leaving the parental home later and pulled into dependency by student debt and high rents, these aren't people who feel that their interests are viewed with much enthusiasm in Westminster. Even if they did, they view the current crop of political leadership with even less enthusiasm than the rest of us. When even the experienced campaigner David Axelrod admits that his current boss isnt a patch on his previous boss, there simply isn't anyone who can get backsides off sofas and into voting booths. The elected remain, on that basis, the self-selected.

Yet, they are not wholly unaccountable and digital technologies do allow us to scrutinise and question our representatives more carefully. The two-way conversations of Twitter especially, but also Facebook, Reddit's AMAs and elsewhere allow us to quiz our politicians - and however adept they may be at answering, the distance between MP and citizen is shorter than ever before. The expectation that a civil question will receive an honest answer is a new phenomenon and one that shines a light on new expectations of transparency. Our politicians are scrutinised by more people than ever before, it's no longer just the work of professional journalists, and, for good or ill, are caught out by the Twitterati as much as the newspapers and TV. While it therefore behoves our politicians to think straighter, it does create an atmosphere of mistrust which might even be slightly poisonous. The politician who can genuinely, successfully ride that particular horse is not yet with us, and perhaps we suffer accordingly, however healthy and robust the process is.

The opportunity for political engagement may lie, instead, with issue-led politics rather than party machinations. The success of agitation platforms like 38 Degrees and Avaaz, and even the government's own ePetitions site (which for disclosure's sake, I once had a hand in) offer a way to get involved directly in single issues and leverage pressure on the government that way. They have had their successes - although even some of these may be deferred defeats - and while the critics of clicktivism may continue to carp, these at least generate interest and even passion. It just doesn't translate to the ballot box.

The enthusiasts for digital democracy would have you believe that they vote less because they only want to do so digitally - the 'X Factor theory', that whippersnappers vote en masse for witless wannabees making noise without meaning, so, with a small pause for you to insert your own joke, it's a straight transfer of the process to political elections.

The technology for voting via your phone, tablet or laptop clearly already exists, but there's the not inconsiderable caveat of privacy and security. Digital democracy is, be honest, quite a big project. Would you trust government to deliver it? Really? Would you want the government which holds your medical records, and is happy to sell them on, to also hold your voting record? Or would you want to cut out the middle man and just have a commercial company to do it? Which company would you trust to hold your political sympathies safe?

Who could deliver a verifiably secure result? Or would you be happy for 4Chan to decide the next government?

So let's worry about all that later. Let's put those concerns into the pile marked 'too hard'. For now, at least. Getting our political culture sorted is a big enough job for now.