From a high of 83.9 per cent in 1950, voter turnout in UK general elections has plummeted, with figures dropping below 60 per cent for the first time in 2001. By contrast, the number of citizens around the world with the vote has rocketed. Today there are 120 electoral democracies, whilst 40 years ago there were just 35 or so, and turnout in these newer democracies is typically much higher than in the UK. Their citizens don’t take voting for granted.
This is partly due to a new shift we are seeing towards alternative voting methods. Many countries are voting not with pencil and paper but with automated systems – either with machines, often using a touch screen, that directly record votes, or by optically scanning and counting paper ballots. Now similar technologies such as online voting offer an opportunity for the UK to reverse the declining trend in turnout and especially to confront dismal youth participation: just 44 per cent of 18 to 25-year olds voted in the 2010 general election.
Electronic voting’s early adopters did so for quite different reasons. Across the Philippines, with its 2000 inhabited islands, the primary aim was to reduce the time between the vote and result announcement. In previous elections, counting could last as long as 18 hours in each polling station and tabulation up to 40 days, leading to a risk of election-related violence in the intervening period. Brazil sought to reduce the rate of invalid votes, which averaged 40 per cent and were largely attributable to the country’s 30 per cent illiterate population. After electronic voting was introduced the rate fell to 7.6 per cent. In the US it took off after the infamous “hanging chads” of the Bush-Gore contest.
In the UK however, where we know the results of our elections the next morning and where levels of illiteracy are fortunately low, turnout is the motivating issue. Much of the problem stems from the simple difficulties or inconveniences that citizens face on election day that make them less likely to vote.
Registration itself can be a substantial barrier to voting with recent estimates indicating that the electoral register is only 85 per cent complete. Those who move regularly – like the quarter of British 19-year olds who moved between local authorities last year – often forget to re-register. Where technology is used to provide late registration, or even election day registration, voter turnout is significantly improved.
But even then visiting the specified polling station may be difficult. In polls, about 20 per cent of non-voters regularly say they didn’t vote because visiting the polling station was inconvenient for them. A long working day, for instance, can make getting to a polling station near home difficult. Electronic voting can allow for voters to cast their ballot at locations other than their home polling station. Imagine the convenience of voting near your work place or even in a shopping centre, as has been trialed already in the UK.
A further step would be to replace postal voting with online voting. Especially for those moving regularly, online voting provides the most accessible way to vote. While online voting is seemingly a big jump forward, conceptually it is little different from other forms of remote or absentee voting such as postal and is much more secure.
The added advantage of both electronic and online voting, is that both have the central feature of verifiability. If you submit your ballot by post or vote in a polling both, you can never be sure that your ballot was received or counted properly or that you haven’t made a mistake marking the ballot. With electronic voting, modern machines produce a paper slip showing that a vote has been counted and even allowing for subsequent recounting. With online voting the voter has the opportunity not only to go back and check their vote has been recorded correctly but also to change it before the final election hour in the case of last minute campaign promises by political candidates.
Making voting easier is more important than ever. As we look to devolve more and more decision-making and as governments seek their constituent’s opinions on ever more issues, it can’t be acceptable that the turnout of the Police and Crime Commissioners in 2012 was just 15 per cent. If we plan to remain in Europe, neither can 33.52 per cent in the recent European elections. There is a virtuous circle in increasing the turnout for such contests, raising their prominence and improving the quality of governance and accountability they provide. But to get there we need to drastically improve our use of voting technology.
Mark Malloch Brown, a cross-bench life peer, has just been appointed Chairman of Smartmatic, the world’s leading provider of electronic voting services. He is a former administrator of the UNDP where he built the largest internationally funded elections programme