John Bercow to consider the case for internet voting in the UK. Is it a good idea?

Dr. Toby James considers the proposal from the Commons Speaker John Bercow that internet voting should be introduced to the UK.  His research on the pilotting of internet voting in the UK suggested that it only had a marginally positive effect on turnout but every idea for increasing turnout deserves a second look.

polling station
Should polling stations make way for internet voting?

E-voting is back on the political agenda in the UK.  The Guardian is reporting that:

[quote]’The Commons Speaker, John Bercow, is establishing a rare independent commission on digital democracy, including the prospect of introducing electronic voting at elections.'[/quote]

You might be surprised to know that internet voting has been used in the UK before.  Between 2000-7 a range of innovative pilots took place in the UK which included internet voting, text message voting and digital TV voting.  Internet voting was used in 2003 and 2007.  I evaluated the experience in an article in the Election Law Journal.

My conclusions were that:

[quote]’On balance, Internet voting and other remote electronic schemes appear to produce only a marginally positive effect on turnout. This effect may increase with more regular use and if Internet voting is always allowed until the close of the traditional poll. However, it is too early to tell on the basis of the experiments so far.’ [/quote]

The full article is here (or available from me on request).

Why the cautious judgement?  If the problem is low turnout, then on the basis of the pilots, internet voting is not an overnight fix.  It might help a little bit, however.  In the 14 pilots held in 2003, 12.6% of votes were cast via the internet.  If you exclude the pilots where citizens were not automatically sent a postal ballot then 16.7% of votes were cast this way.

That might not sound like much but the take up of internet voting was higher in some places than others.  It was higher when internet voting pilots had been held before and when internet voting was open until the close of the poll (in some pilots internet voting closed early).

Surveys did show that many people who used internet voting would have voted anyway. Yet in one survey 31% of people suggested that it encouraged them to vote and this figure was higher among the 18–34 age group (37%) than the older groups.  Surveys at the time also showed that it was popular with the public and there were no concerns about fraud.

Learning lessons from the earlier pilots is difficult because:

  • internet voting was run simultaneously with text message voting, all-postal voting, digital TV and more – when evaluating the pilots it was difficult to work out the effect of one from the others;
  • it was ten years since the 2003 elections and the spread of  tablets, iphones and smart phones is much greater, and attitudes to the internet may have changed; and,
  • pilots in local government elections are completely different to national elections.  If people were allowed to vote via the internet for a 2015 election, for example. the media hype and the reaction of politicians and citizens would be completely different.

There are lots of reasons why people do not vote.  For many, like Russell Brand, it is a conscious decision not to vote.  However, the pressures of life, work, family, study and more means that the amount of time that it takes for a citizen to cast a vote can make a real difference to whether they vote or not.  Given how low voter turnout (and registration) is in the UK, it is certainly worth looking at ways to make it easier to register and cast a vote, and engaging the public through the web.

Dr. Toby James is a Lecturer in British Politics at the University of East Anglia.  His research focusses on election administration, electoral management and political leadership.  He is the author of Elite Statecraft and Election Administration.  For more information see:

Photo credit: secretlondon123 and National Assembly for Wales

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