We have held elections in the UK for more than 300 years. Over time we have become more democratic, but until every eligible voter is able to participate independently in elections, we cannot claim that we live in a true democracy.
Were we a democracy in the 1700s, when only the richest men in society were able to vote? Were we a democracy in the 1800s, when the vote was restricted to those who owned property? Were we a democracy in the early 1900s, when only 40 per cent of women could vote? We were not, because universal suffrage is the bedrock of true democracy. But today, swathes of the population – those with severe disabilities and vision impairments – remain locked out of our electoral system. This should concern all of us.
The ability to cast an independent and secret ballot is a right enshrined in the UK Human Rights Act and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This right is denied, however, to voters with a housebound or bedbound disability, to the 99 per cent of vision-impaired people who are unable to read Braille, and to people who are able to use an iPad but cannot hold a pen. For these individuals, the default option is to rely on someone else to cast their vote, whether it’s at the polling station or at the post box.
Any of us could develop a disability during our lives. This should not be a concern purely for the two million vision impaired, the 1.8 million living in inaccessible housing, or the tens of thousands who use British Sign Language as their first language.
For several years now, I’ve been researching the potential of remote online voting in elections. The internet has reshaped almost every aspect of modern life – the way we communicate, date, educate, and much more. Technological advances have also helped tear down barriers to accessibility, with navigation tools, voice assistants, and screen-readers. But a voter at a polling station a century ago would notice little difference with a polling station today. Online voting is fraught with challenges, but it could offer a more convenient way to vote for most people, and real access to democracy for others.
The current provision for voters with disabilities is woeful. Take, for example, the provision of Braille templates at polling stations for those with vision impairments. Advances in technology have rendered these templates almost pointless, given that less than 1 per cent of vision-impaired people in the UK are able to read Braille. It is for this reason, amongst others, that countries such as Australia and Estonia have introduced online voting into their elections. In recent years, Australian disability campaigners have been successfully pushing for the reform on the basis that the government has an obligation to facilitate accessible voting methods.
There are of course challenges. The greatest worry is security. What if the vote is hacked by a foreign state? How do we know our vote has been recorded accurately? Can votes be kept anonymous? Significant investment in research would be needed to answer these questions. An online voting option would require a method of identity verification, and may need to take place over a period of weeks rather than a single day. Designing a secure system will take time.
There are also, however, significant benefits. The option to vote online would enable someone with a vision impairment to cast a vote using their own device. Voters with severe motor disabilities would be able to participate without needing to rely on others. Those who use sign language as their first language would be better included in the debate.
The current government, recognising the need to make elections accessible, undertook a public consultation on this topic last year. Despite numerous disability charities calling for pilots of online voting, the government dismissed the suggestion. But the argument for extending access to democracy in this way cannot be ignored forever. The need to ensure that universal suffrage is properly realised should be a moral duty of any government, today and in the future.
Areeq Chowdhury is the founder of WebRoots Democracy and head of think tank at Future Advocacy.