Reimagine elections: Enabling a democracy that works for everyone

As we move towards building “a democracy that works for everyone”, we cannot afford to overlook the fact that our method of voting is an analogue one.

At the same time that more and more people are switching towards a digital by default lifestyle with their method of banking, shopping, dating, and communicating, our levels of voter participation have been in woeful decline. With the exception of the odd EU referendum, many citizens fail to make it to the ballot box on polling day and even within that vote, nearly 13 million eligible voters did not participate.

The challenge is a real one. Whilst the ‘big-ticket’ votes like Westminster elections and national referenda may enjoy majority voter turnouts, research shows that around 95% of the UK’s 19,000 elected politicians are voted in on turnouts of sub-50%. In May last year, the London Mayoral election failed to obtain at least 50% voter turnout for the fifth time in a row. Voter engagement amongst young people has been a consistent problem in this millennium with less than 50% of young people turning out to vote in the past four General Elections. Some polls suggest that the same happened in the EU referendum, a vote that very clearly affects that age group the most.

Whilst young people only make up around 20% of the current population, they make up 100% of the future one. So not taking action to boost their engagement today may only serve to enhance this problem for future governments later down the line.

Future-proofing elections

There are many factors that contribute to poor levels of voter participation and there is no one silver bullet for it. However, upgrading our voting system so that it reflects the way the population lives the rest of their daily lives would be a sensible place to start. The ways in which people work, shop, and receive information has transformed in recent years and whilst our democracy if often touted as “the world’s oldest”, the process of voting doesn’t have to feel archaic.

Continue reading “Reimagine elections: Enabling a democracy that works for everyone”

Facebook and fact-checkers can’t defeat fake news, only education can

Fake news, cyber-trolls, echo chamber. We’re in a new era. An era where digital technology has a tangible impact on our lives and in our politics. It’s ‘Democracy 2.0’. Although there are so many possibilities, we need to understand and clamp down on the abuse, in order to exploit the potential. There are so many positives and negatives of the internet. It’s time for action on both.

Clicktivism has wiped out the costs and enabled political action on a mass scale. Whether it’s for the organisation of worldwide rallies for women’s rights, or the gathering of thousands of signatures for a petition, the internet has made it easy for citizens to organise and campaign.

This blessing has come with the plight of bullying and ‘alternative facts’. Whilst social media provides a platform for us to voice opinions on a digital soapbox, the fear of personal abuse from strangers or anonymous profiles has a stifling, silencing effect and prevents people from sharing ideas and challenging misconceptions. Alternative facts and fake news spread like wildfire on the internet. The risk is that any political action that people do take may be entirely misguided and ineffective.

The plague of fake news and the escalation of cyber-trolling requires action. The onus is on politicians to listen, and then act. Fact-checkers and Facebook are not going to end the problem of fake news on their own. The answer is to educate young people on how to critically analyse what they read online, and in the media. By failing to ensure that our democracy keeps up-to-date with technology, the UK Government risks allowing political engagement to slide into decline.

Two years ago, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, reported the findings of his Commission on Digital Democracy and recommended the introduction of online voting and greater political education. The Commissioners also made recommendations on modernising the inner-workings of the UK Parliament – of which there has been some progress. However, with regards to action by the Government on voter engagement, this has been severely lacking. It’s a shame that instead of accepting, and then tackling these challenges with reforms that are actually needed, the Government is instead prioritising voter identity pilots.

Our political processes must be updated to reflect the lives of digital natives and made more accessible for those who are locked out of the system altogether. As we walk the road towards greater devolution with more elected Mayors and powers going to local councillors, we have to look at these issues of voter engagement and political engagement, afresh. Research published last year found that 95% of elected politicians were voted in on turnouts of less than 50%. It’s surely time to take action.

Citizens need to be in a position where they are able to cast informed votes, on tough decisions. They should be empowered to know what their local councillors and elected Mayors are responsible for, as well as what their prospective local councillors and elected Mayors stand for. And in 2017, technology should be playing a big role in moving this forward.

A report published today by the Institute for Digital Democracy explores the progress made since the Speaker’s Commission two years ago. It sets out a series of recommendations for the Government, and Parliament, to adopt; including reforms such as mandatory political education in schools, and a call for the Electoral Commission to create an official, independent voter advice application – ‘VAA’ – ahead of the 2020 General Election. The idea is for the VAA to be developed in cooperation with political parties, academics and citizens – and coordinated with the publication of candidates’ manifestos. This app would then be widely promoted to ensure that as many voters as possible could take advantage of the tool, as part of weighing up which party deserves their vote.

On political education, it’s perhaps an understatement to say that it is a subject that’s not taken seriously by students or teachers (despite the best efforts of many educators, NGOs, and campaigners). We currently risk allowing pupils to leave the school system without even a basic understanding of the political world, and how they can make their voices heard. This becomes a bigger problem, particularly in the digital age, when we expect people to cast informed votes whilst being bombarded by the likes of fake news and false facts.

Words and reports alone will not change anything. Since Mr Speaker’s report, there has been no progress on cyber abuse, no progress on political education – and no progress on online voting. The solutions are known. The ideas are out there. The Government needs to accept its leadership role, look to the future – and take action.

This was originally posted on the Huffington Post here.

Letter: ID cards and wider issues of voter engagement

The government is correct to ignore some of Eric Pickles’ more retrograde recommendations such as banning selfies and non-English languages at polling stations. It is also correct to seek to address the current lack of voter verification we see throughout elections. However, the government risks isolating communities by ruling out the possibility of introducing a separate voter identity document for those without traditional forms of ID. A real pilot scheme would test all viable options, including a separate voter identity document.

Rather than tackling voter fraud, the minister responsible, Chris Skidmore, should be focusing on how to boost voter engagement. Estimates show that 95% of the UK’s 19,000 elected politicians were voted in on turnouts of less than 50%. In the EU referendum, 13 million people did not vote. On top of that, voters with vision impairments, voters with disabilities and voters abroad are virtually locked out of the voting system. Rather than tinkering with a broken system of the past, we should instead look to the future of elections and create a system fit for the 21st century.

This letter was written was originally published in the Guardian here.

London is headed towards democratic dysfunction in 2020

2016 witnessed a memorable moment of history for the UK’s capital city when Sadiq Khan was elected the first Muslim Mayor of London.  An outsider when he announced his candidacy, Khan managed to defeat his Conservative rival Zac Goldsmith by more than 300,000 votes, gaining the largest personal mandate of any politician in British history.  However, despite the often toxic campaigns and the huge responsibilities of the role, for the fifth time in a row, the Mayoral election failed to entice more than half of London’s electorate to turn out to vote.

This may change on the sixth attempt.  In 2020, the London Mayoral (and Assembly) elections are due to coincide with the 2020 General Election meaning it will likely piggy-back off the higher voter turnouts that come with Parliamentary elections and finally shatter the ceiling of democratic disengagement.

Despite this, a report released this week by the London Assembly Election Review Panel has found that as many as 32,000 people’s votes were rejected due to them voting for too many candidates as their first choice.  The report says that it indicates that there may be “confusion about the supplementary vote system” used to elect the Mayor of London.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  In 2004, half a million votes in London were deemed to have been spoilt due to “multi-vote confusion.”

The London Assembly report includes a number of recommendations such as introducing ‘incident log books’ at polling stations, greater guidance for voters, and to potentially moving and creating an additional election day for the London Mayoral and Assembly in October, in order to avoid the clash.

In September, the Electoral Commission raised similar concerns about the capital’s clash of elections in 2020 highlighting that voters will be faced with “four different ballot papers and three voting systems.”  The Commission recommended that the Government should consider “the complexity of the combined polls” carefully before 2020.

The blunt reality however is that these are analogue solutions for archaic problems.  London, the entrepreneurial and forward-thinking city that it is, should be thinking outside of the 20th century bubble and towards the future.  Were any private sector organisation faced with a similar issue of human error and an administrative burden, they would look towards innovative and technological solutions.  So why doesn’t London?

Online voting is what the capital’s election administrators should be looking into.

Aside from missing the financial savings that would be gained for the tax-payer by holding the election on the same day as the Parliamentary one, this move would ultimately lead to yet another Mayoral election where over half the city fails to show up to the ballot box.

I question the point of delaying the Mayoral election to a date where significantly less people are likely to show up simply to avoid tens of thousands accidentally spoiling their votes.  Instead, by aligning the vote with the General Election we would likely see hundreds of thousands, if not a million, more Londoners turn out to vote.

The question therefore should be ‘how do we do obtain the best of both worlds?’ and the real issue to be tackled is the current lack of legitimacy the Mayor and Assembly have as a result of the consistently poor levels of democratic engagement.

With all of the new challenges online voting presents, it would equally open up a whole realm of opportunity.  Opportunity to resign issues like ‘accidentally spoilt ballots’ to the dustbin, and opportunity to enable a more accessible method of voting for Londoners with disabilities and vision-impairments, as well as the city’s youth and long-hour workers.

And you don’t need to take my word for it.  Two more prominent London-dwellers than I backed the campaign for online voting.  Their names? Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan.

Following a WebRoots Democracy/YouGov poll published last year which showed 59% of Londoners in favour of implementing online voting for Mayoral elections, both Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith publicly backed the campaign.

At the time, Khan said “it’s high time we introduce online voting” and that “done properly so that we’re sure its affordable and secure, it could play a big role in more people having a say in who runs the country.”

Previously, during his time as Shadow Justice Secretary, Khan wrote that “if we are serious about raising turnout at elections and getting more people involved in the way our country is run, then we need to do all we can to drag our democracy into the 21st century.”

On top of that, both candidates were successfully elected by their respective parties using online voting systems.  So it is highly possible that the political will would be there, should we take that tentative step towards what some label as an ‘inevitable’ future.

Will we accept this inevitable modernisation though and begin working on it?  Or will we instead choose to continue down the path towards inevitable democratic dysfunction?

This was originally published on the Huffington Post here.

Pickles’ election reforms risk creating further barriers to voting

I’ve finally had the chance to have a read of Eric Pickles’ long-awaited review into electoral fraud, and I think I agree with the analysis which describes it as the use of “a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”

Whilst a lot of the recommended reforms are welcome in the way they strengthen the process against fraud, many of the other reforms risk creating further barriers to voting and potentially discriminate against ethnic minorities.

Overall, the review amounts to some tinkering of the aged paper-based methods, and fails to look towards to the future of voting and towards the use of technology to create a more secure system of voting.  Whilst voter fraud has had significant consequences in pockets of the country, the recommended restrictions risk deepening the more pressing issue of poor voter turnouts.

The requirement for voters to produce identification at polling stations is a welcome recommendation, and the current lack of requirement is something I have questioned for a while. Under the current system, any Tom, Dick or Harry can walk into a polling station, claim to be someone else and cast a vote, perhaps even repeatedly in one day. Malicious individuals may end up using fake IDs, but some safeguard in this area is better than no safeguard at all.

Other recommendations, however, such as the ban on the use of non-English or Welsh languages at polling stations serve no purpose other than to discriminate against voters who struggle with their command of the English language. This ban would include ‘any assistance given to electors by electoral staff.’

This recommendation would particularly discriminate against ethnic minorities or other individuals for whom English is not their first language. According to the 2011 Census, English is not the main language for more than 4 million people in the UK. In the London Borough of Newham, only 58.6% declared that English was their main language. Newham is a borough in which 71% of the population are from an ethnic minority background.

It is relatively easy, therefore, to see how a ban on the use of non-English languages to assist voters who do not have a strong command of the language is likely to make it much harder for those citizens to vote. The solution, surely, is to invest in reaching out to those citizens more and educating them about how the democratic process works, rather than to implement measures which serve only to isolate them.

Another recommendation which concerns me, is the idea of banning the option of being able to permanently request a postal vote. Whilst I understand the thinking behind it, particularly with cases such as Tower Hamlets, in which postal voting fraud was carried out, this particular measure risks creating a further barrier to voting for those with disabilities. The recommendation in the Pickles Review is for voters to reapply for a postal vote every three years.

I also question the recommendation for the Government to retain the IP addresses used to make voter registration applications. The Government themselves invested in voter registration schemes in which people went out to register voters on a single device, such as an iPad. The suggestion of the Government retaining ‘IP-matching’ data has been a topic of contention in British politics and in particular with regards to the so-called “Snoopers Charter.”

Despite this, suggestions such as increasing the maximum sentences for electoral fraud, and increased training for election staff are welcome measures which should be brought in before the next elections.

Although Sir Eric speaks of the “need to support engagement and not create undue barriers to democratic participation”, there is little, if anything, which looks at measures to support voter engagement. What the report does recognise, however, are the security flaws in the current democratic process.

Moving forward, we should look to the future and have a conversation about modernising our elections, rather than purely tinkering here and there with an outdated process, particularly if that tinkering restricts legitimate electors from voting.

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.

Trade Union Bill: Why it’s time for online strike ballots

As you may be aware, the Trade Union Bill is currently going through the House of Lords, and many are campaigning to modernise regulations to allow unions to hold online ballots instead of solely postal ones.

Despite every major political party in the UK, the NHS, top universities, and global stock exchanges using online voting, the government has so far opposed amendments to the Bill to allow unions to update their voting system on the grounds of security concerns.

According to a recent YouGov poll, the online strike ballots reform is one backed by the majority of the British public. It’s also a reform backed by the former business secretary, the ex-head of the Civil Service, and the Institute of Directors.

Online voting is something trade unions have been requesting for several years, but the case for modernisation is now stronger than ever.

The latest figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on digital access reveals that daily internet usage in the UK has more than doubled in the past decade.

The total number of adults that use the internet everyday or nearly everyday is 39.3 million. The ONS data also shows that 96 per cent of 16-to-24-year-olds use the internet ‘on the go’ indicating that the future is likely to be even more digital than it is now.

Paper and postal services are looking to be on their way out, too, as the nation works together towards a paperless, environmentally friendly way of doing things, and embraces the ease and accessibility of the internet,

In 2008, the government commissioned an independent review into the postal services in the UK. The resulting report entitled ‘Modernise or decline’ found that a ‘digital revolution’ was contributing to the structural decline of the postal sector.

They found that, compared to postal mail, digital alternatives are immediate, flexible and have ‘often zero’ marginal cost. A review in 2013 by PwC predicted that the letters market will fall by billions of items over the current decade.

The government is itself on a mission towards a ‘digital by default’ paperless method of utilising public services.

In a speech around this time last year, former cabinet office minister Lord Francis Maude said the following:

“Digital services are 20 times cheaper than over the phone, 30 times cheaper than by post, and 50 times cheaper than face-to-face. But it’s also an opportunity to create better services: more responsive to people’s needs and more convenient to use. If you can shop online at midnight and bank from your smartphone, then you should be able to renew your passport or view your driving record just as easily.”

So if the public is able to access and update information as sensitive as their identity documents and driving records online, shouldn’t they be able to cast votes on strike action online?

Of course, the security concerns around anything digital should be taken seriously, and it is something I have looked into at great length through my experience campaigning for online voting to be introduced as an option in elections.

Last month, WebRoots Democracy published a 30,000 word report examining the key security challenges facing the implementation of online voting covering areas such as cyber-attacks, voter coercion, and malware on devices.

The report, Secure Voting, backed by MPs from across the political spectrum and written by global experts and academics in the electronic voting field, provides assurances on security backed by decades of experience in cyber security.

A common theme throughout the study is the strength online voting systems can have when compared to current methods such as postal voting, which has a number of potential security flaws. The only thing that is securing a postal vote is a gummed envelope.

However, whilst online voting can present some new challenges with regards to security, it also provides new methods of securing the vote, too. One interesting idea put forward in the report for example, is the idea of ‘repeat voting’, which lets voters vote as many times as they like, with only the last vote cast being counted.

This is a method intended to reduce the risk and impact of being peer pressured by others to vote in a certain way; a safeguard which does not exist with postal balloting.

Other ideas put forward include the use of voter verification tools such as the government’s GOV.UK Verify, as well as the use of live-monitoring of the voting system, encryption processes, and a block chain based public bulletin board to ensure that the votes received are the same as the ones that were cast.

This involves similar technology to that which is used for the cryptocurrency, Bitcoin.

So while security concerns are something which should be addressed by any organisation that decides to bring their operations into the modern age, it is not an insurmountable challenge.

In a country where there are 8 million more adults online than in employment, it seems nonsensical for opposition to online strike ballots to continue.

This was originally published on Left Foot Forward here.

Online voting: One rule for political parties, another rule for trade unions?

There seems to be an inconsistency in the Government’s stance relating to the use of online voting in trade union strike ballots.

The Government has, so far, rejected calls by trade union leaders to allow members to vote online in strike ballots despite them being ‘open’ to online voting for future elections and despite every major UK political party using online voting for internal elections.

The Conservatives, Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems, and the Greens have all implemented online voting for internal party elections in recent years.

Just weeks prior to the Prime Minister’s rejection in the House of Commons of online voting for trade unions, Conservative Party members in London had voted online to elect Zac Goldsmith as their 2016 London Mayoral candidate.

Not too long before that, the largest online voting election in UK history took place when almost 350,000 people (81% of the total turnout) voted online in Labour’s leadership election.

In Scotland last year, members of the SNP went online to vote in the Deputy Leadership election following Nicola Sturgeon’s promotion to leader.

In London, members of the Liberal Democrats and Greens, like the Conservatives and Labour, used online voting to select their candidates for next year’s London Mayoral Elections.

Incidentally, the two leading candidates in the London Mayoral race, Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith have both backed the campaign for an online voting option in future elections.

Despite this, when questioned during PMQs by Labour MP, Liz McInnes, the Prime Minister argued against allowing trade union members to vote online and proceeded to cite research by the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy to support his position.

I found this to be an odd citation considering the headline recommendation of the Speaker’s Commission was for an online voting option to be implemented in the next General Election.

This mirrors a recommendation made by the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in research they undertook on voter engagement.

The comments, however, were also a break from the Prime Minister’s comments in the run up to the last election.

When questioned on live TV by young people as part of Sky News’ election coverage, the Prime Minister said he had ‘no objection’ to online voting.

But it’s not just members of UK political parties that vote online. The chief executive of the second largest stock exchange in the world, NASDAQ, recently announced that they will be testing blockchain technology to simplify the proxy voting system for shareholders. In 2014, across the Atlantic, voting via online platforms accounted for over 95% of shareholder votes.

Globally, in countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Estonia, and New Zealand, governments have implemented online voting in political elections.

In the USA, despite huge cyber-security pressures, President Obama has described online voting as ‘absolutely’ a priority for technology companies, and suggested it would help ‘enhance the experience of democracy.’

Here in the UK, there appears to be strong public support for modernising balloting procedures.

A WebRoots Democracy/YouGov poll this year found that 56% of the British public want online voting implemented for the upcoming EU referendum.

So why aren’t trade unions allowed to take advantage of technology to enable more of their members to participate in the decision-making process?

The Business Secretary, Sajid Javid argues that at the ‘heart’ of the Trade Union Bill ‘it is all about democracy and accountability.’

The suggestion set out in the bill is for minimum turnout thresholds of 50% to be met in ballots before strike action can be taken. However, research last year by Unite found that if this was applied to the Coalition Cabinet, not a single Conservative member would have met the threshold of 50% in their constituencies.

The average turnout mustered in London Mayor elections is just 39% and the turnout in the European Parliament elections last year was just a third.

I agree that greater democracy is a good thing, not just for unions, but in general. However, I fail to see how introducing a minimum threshold whilst enforcing 20th century postal balloting methods in a 21st century society is going to bring about that ideal.

Postal communications has been on a rapid decline in the past ten years, and more and more people have embraced the internet.

Figures released by the ONS this year revealed that internet usage in the UK has doubled in the past decade with almost 40 million adults logging on every single day.

It is a matter of fairness and progress – if politics and business can benefit from technology and vote online, shouldn’t unions be able to?