OPINION15 April 2015

ELECTION BLOG: Digital democracy


The internet has changed the way people participate in democracies around the world but the UK is lagging behind and this is barrier to voting says ICM Unlimited’s Martin Boon and Laura Byrne.

Here in Britain we can now tweet our MPs, connect to campaigners on other continents and sign e-petitions that, if popular enough, will be debated in parliament. All this, and yet the purest form of democratic participation – voting in an election – remains strictly offline. When people cast their vote on 7th May, it’ll either be in person at a polling station or in advance using a postal vote.

Turnout in the first three general elections of the 21st Century was lower than it had been for decades. 

The 2010 general election attracted two thirds ( 65.1%) of adults to the polls, while turnout in the most recent European election attracted almost half that number ( 34.2%).

While those figures may sound low at the overall level, turnout was significantly lower among young people. Consistently across elections, 18- to 24-year-olds have by far been the least likely to cast a vote. In the 2010 general election, for instance, just over half ( 51.8%) of 18- to 24-year-olds voted, compared with three-quarters ( 74.7%) of over 65s. While the Scottish Independence referendum managed, temporarily, to reignite young people’s political passions, few expect to see a similar display this May.

With such low turnout figures, particularly among young people, serious questions need to be asked about the barriers to voting. One of the most pressing questions to explore is whether or not e-voting would encourage higher turnout at elections. Our research over the past year indicates that the British public is hungry for e-voting.

E-voting research

Our research has uncovered strong support for the proposal. Almost two-thirds ( 64%) of British adults are in favour of voting online in future elections. Positive sentiment is at its highest among 35- to 44-year-olds, who we know to be less apathetic than 18- to 24-year-olds but more tech savvy than some of the older groups. Furthermore, there is a lack of resistance to the idea, with under a fifth ( 18%) of adults voicing opposition to e-voting.

What is perhaps more revealing is that half ( 50%) of British adults say they would actually rather vote online than at the polling station. Again, 35- to 44-year-olds are the most enthusiastic about the prospect, but, at the same time, more than half of 18- to 24-year-olds say they would prefer to vote online. Unsurprisingly, given findings elsewhere, a hefty proportion of older people would rather stick to voting at a polling station or by post.

Theoretical support for online voting is all very well and good, but would it actually change behaviour at future elections? Following the European and local elections in May 2014, ICM asked non-voters whether they would have been more likely to vote if they’d been able to do so online. More than half ( 54%) told us that they would have been, compared with 41% who said it would have made no difference. Crucially, the option of voting online would apparently create the greatest behaviour change among 16- to 34-year-olds, of whom two thirds ( 67%) said they would have been more likely to vote if they could have done so online.

Of course, being “more likely” to vote doesn’t guarantee that introducing online voting would nudge an apathetic hard-core into democratic engagement, but it certainly indicates a step in the right direction.

Barriers to delivery

While appetite for voting online exists, there are substantial barriers to actually delivering e-voting. Let’s not forget how much we’ve heard recently about the threat of cyber-terrorism, computer hacking, and major leaks of personal information online. Moreover, there have been numerous accusations of electoral fraud relating to postal voting in recent years. Having said that, when we asked British adults whether they would resist online voting as a result of security and privacy concerns, only one in three ( 32%) thought they would.

Highly secure and sophisticated technology would be required to ensure that each online vote would be confidential, and that the final count would reflect the true number of votes cast. Moreover, the government would need to create a watertight system to validate the identity of each individual voter.  All things considered, creating a secure digital platform for voting will be no mean feat.

E-voting has already been trialled, with varying levels of success, in several different countries. The most well-established system is in Estonia, but even there the majority of voters still opt to go to the polling station over logging on. Most recently, the Norwegian government abandoned their own e-voting trials amid concerns over security. While various trials have taken place since 2003 in the UK, online voting has, as of yet, not been rolled out.

Despite these difficulties, the head of the Electoral Commission, Jenny Watson, last year declared that e-voting “is not an issue that can stay on the slow-track any longer”. This sentiment is matched by a strong sense of expectation from the public. Most people ( 57%) are surprised that you can’t already vote online.

Indeed, in a world where we can use the internet to renew a passport, pay our taxes and register for benefits, there’s a sense of inevitability about one day being able to vote online. Whether or not e-voting truly will improve participation remains to be seen, but with engagement so low, particularly among younger voters, bringing the mechanics of voting into the 21st Century is a measure that this democracy cannot ignore.

By Laura Byrne and Martin Boon, ICM Unlimited