Online voting and digital democracy: Bridging the democratic divide in the UK

Digital democracy, the next frontier in modern democratic reform, is a concept that isn’t given the prominence it deserves in British political discourse; but it is a concept that is fundamental to bridging the widening democratic divide between the young and the old.

As I define it, it is the interaction, interdependence, and intertwinement of technology and politics. It doesn’t necessarily have to be politics as we think of it in the most obvious manner, such as elections and campaigning, but it can also be politics in the way we organise and govern society. Digital democracy can involve technologically transforming public services in a way that enables them to be more accountable, affordable and efficient. In a more vivid sense, it can also involve harnessing the reach of technology to engage millions more in our democratic process through the use of online voting.

During the 16 years of this 21st century, we have witnessed a multitude of material, technological, changes to our culture and way of life in the United Kingdom. Back when we were recognising the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, did we know that by the time of her Diamond one, we would be engaging with our political leaders via 10 second “snaps” and 140 character “tweets”?  Did we know that bookshelves would no longer be required to store an encyclopaedia of the world’s knowledge, but merely a pocket or the palm of a hand?

Official statistics state that in the past decade alone, internet usage in Britain has doubled, with 78 per cent of adults now using the internet every day or nearly every day.  The same figures also show that for young people aged 16 to 24, 96 per cent of them now use the internet “on the go”. But in an age where digital is the modern motor, and analogue the horse-drawn carriage, what has held back our political system to such an extent that it is more reflective of life in the 1800s, than life in the 2000s?

For reforms like online voting, there have been a number of issues holding back progress, and they are not mutually exclusive to politics. Technological advancement has been criticised and side-eyed throughout history, and sceptics are often found to have been standing on the wrong side of it. From my experience in leading the campaign for online voting here in the UK, the two main stumbling blocks I have come across are political will and cyber-security fears. Although political will, especially in British democracy, tends to traverse at the pace of a tortoise when it comes to reflecting modern society, I believe it is something that will soon overtake the hare of entrenched political reluctance and tradition.

The security concerns which are raised are always valid, and risks should continuously be mapped and mitigated when it comes to any project, online or offline. The conversations around digital democracy and online voting, however, do appear to contain some voices which are more vocal than others, and this lack of balance, tends to stifle progress.

There is no academic consensus against online voting among computer scientists and cyber-security experts, and nor is there a consensus against it amongst global technology experts in the field. Experts across the globe, including the likes of Symantec, Intel, Microsoft, and Google, as well as computer scientists across Europe, have been engaging the topic of online voting with positivity in recent years. More and more, it seems, the conversation around online voting is moving from a question of “how” and “if”, to “when”, and that is a good thing.

All reasonable indicators point firmly towards digital democracy having positive potential impacts on participation and engagement. These include a multitude of opinion polls, and an examination of how digitalising services in other sectors has significantly increased the numbers of participants and regularity of participation. And when it comes to young people, the digital natives to whom instruction manuals are nothing but a nuisance, it makes logical sense that digital democracy would have a particular impact on them.

It isn’t a case of young people being lazy, which is a patronising claim at best, it’s a case of the process not capitalising on where they are at. Young people send a thousand more messages a day than some generations have sent in their entire lifetime, and it is at the touch of their fingertips. Young people have lived, and future generations will continue to live, a very different experience to their elder counterparts, and technology plays a big part in that.

Alongside the potential to capitalise on our social media society, embracing an online voting option can enable a new, more engaging, more accessible, and more informative mode of democratic participation. On the global stage, the UK would be playing catch-up on this reform behind the likes of Australia, France, Canada, and Estonia. However, if we are to close the gap between the old and the young, and create a future-proof political process, we need to begin constructing the digital bridge across the democratic divide.

When it comes to digital democracy, it is ultimately a question of whether you believe people should adapt to politics, or politics should adapt to the people. In my mind, with ever-changing cultures and behaviours, it should always be politics adapting to the people.

This was originally published on the Fabian Review here.

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