This week, a relatively small majority of MPs blocked a proposal from the House of Lords to extend the right to vote in the EU referendum to 16 and 17 year olds. It was a bit of an aberrant decision. Usually the discussion is about about how to get the young to get engaged enough to vote- not how to keep them out.
Because long-term trend of declining participation in elections risks undermining our democracy. Governments are now elected by a smaller and smaller percentage of the eligible public with turnout among young people the lowest of any group. We should take every sixteen and seventeen year old we can get who will bother to turn out and vote.
This year's General Election revealed stubbornly low voter turnout at less than two-thirds of the eligible public and just 43% of 18-24 years olds cast their ballots. This should be proof enough that our system is failing our democracy. We must ask whether our system of a register, polling station, ballot boxes, postal and proxy votes is fit for modern Britain. Turnout was highest among postal voters showing people value a way to vote at a time of their choosing but we know that it is method suspect and vulnerable to fraud. When an overwhelming majority have adopted technology to make everyday tasks so much easier - everything from banking to booking a doctor's appointment - why can't we apply the benefits to our elections?
Technology can play a vital role in increasing participation. Smartmatic, the voting technology company I chair, polled eligible voters on the day of the General Election earlier this year to understand why some people decide not to vote and what, if anything, would encourage them to do so in the future. Four out of ten people said that being able to vote online would have made them more likely to turn out. While half of the 18-24 years olds surveyed in Smartmatic's poll stated that they were confident in using the current voting system, such as how to register and where to find their local polling station, it did not translate into that level of participation. Yet 57% said they would be more likely to vote if they could do so online, much higher than the general population.
New research from Columbia University, published in the American Journal of Political Science in September, found voting behaviours become habitual. The research examined the trend in the United States by looking at the behavioural effects of voting in U.S. presidential and midterm elections from 1992 through 2010 in a large number of states and found that voting in one election increases the likelihood of voting in subsequent elections by 10 percent.
I am encouraged to see that the Government has not ruled out introducing digital voting in future. Countries as diverse as the US, Estonia and Belgium as well as large parts of Asia and Latin America have already modernized their voting systems to make as easier for a large a majority of the electorate as possible to participate in a free, secure and robust votes.
The answer would appear simple; adopt technology. It can improve participation in and security of elections, get young people into the habit of voting and give our democracy a much needed shot in the arm.