Voter Apathy: Would E-voting Increase Turnout?
Poor voter turnout at recent local and European Parliament elections have raised once again the question of electronic voting to stimulate the electorate into action. New Media Knowledge weighed up the possibilities.
Despite recent high profile political news stories voter turnout at the local and European Parliament elections in the UK was poor. Turnout for the European Parliament election was just one-third of the electorate (34.1 per cent), despite the European Parliament’s huge influence over laws in the UK.
Poor voter turnout typically provokes technology companies to promote the potential of electronic voting (e-voting), and this year is no different. NMK decided to take a look at where the technology is being used to great effect and what needs to be done to instigate its use in the UK.
Power to the People
Estonia allowed Internet voting during this month’s European Parliament elections, including the ability to change choices right up until the end of the polling period. Additionally, in an attempt to boost voter engagement the European Union and political parties have invested heavily in social media, such as Twitter, blogs and Facebook to get their message across and increase turnout.
At the 2007 European elections, communications provider ntl:Telewest Business found that nearly half (46 per cent) of Britons said that e-voting would make them more likely to turn out to vote, especially the young. Two years on and there is still no advance in the debate in the UK, according to the firm.
Andrew McGrath, commercial director at ntl:Telewest Business, believes that technology is being overlooked as a means to increase engagement and enable voters, particularly the young, to join the political conversation through social media tools.
“The missing link is the ability to vote electronically,” he told NMK. “Our research found that securely providing this option would boost turnout, widening choice and strengthening democracy.”
Barriers to Adoption
While Estonians had the choice of Web-based voting in 2007, only 3.5 per cent of votes were cast this way, according to Dr. Andy Williamson, director of the e-Democracy Programme at policy think tank, the Hansard Society (pictured below). Williamson says the Estonian system was supported by a national identity card system, something which has traditionally proved controversial in the UK, and a system of logins and PINs could be logistically complex and expensive, he warned.
“The second issue is trust; it’s an interesting social phenomenon that whenever you computerise a well established manual process there is widespread distrust, dissatisfaction and dismay,” he told NMK. “The more public and ingrained that process, the greater the resistance. The public seems skeptical of e-voting: How do you separate authentication data from the vote cast? How do you ensure it is not abused? How do I know my vote was properly counted? All of these problems can be solved technically but will they be accepted culturally?”
Research by Elections New Zealand suggest that one third of voting age New Zealanders would vote online if they could but a quarter definitely would not, Williamson added. The Republic of Ireland recently mothballed e-voting due to the cost of securely storing the machines between elections, which raises another problem for terminal-based e-voting systems.
The vast majority of UK MPs feel that e-voting is less secure than postal voting, which itself is seen as flawed, Williamson added.
“Whilst citizens might have some doubts about the current manual process it does largely work and, in a country where electoral fraud is relatively low, the system is accepted as adequate and there would appear to be little appetite for change,” he concluded.