Digital voting and democracy: a Q&A with myself

Yesterday I was on a panel as part of the BBC Democracy day, discussing all things digital and democratic. I was there partly because I like to hack government and have set up a business based on doing just that, and because I also sit on the Speaker’s Commission for Digital Democracy.

(For those who did not click on the link explaining what I mean by hacking government, I suggest you do before freaking out!)

Much was discussed of course, but I was not able to process fully or comment thoughtfully on the extended discussion about online voting. (Stuart Dredge has written this conversation up very well on the Guardian site here but I would like to continue the discussion after having slept on it.)

Those who have read my blog posts over the years will know that I tend to write when I am in the process of noodling stuff, rather than after I have fully formed an opinion. It helps my brain but also your input really helps me understand what it is I am not considering – so please do pile in.

This topic is very clearly divided into:

1. Should it happen? and

2. How will it happen?

The how is the technical conversation, and quickly becomes a topic that few can follow with full understanding of the words people are using; it starts with encryption and gets worse from there. I cannot add to this, nor can I hand on heart take part in this discussion with full knowledge of the facts, examples and technology required, so I would rather leave that to those who do. And I do hear your impassioned pleas to understand more, I am doing my best (the Commission has had a *lot* of input from experts on this).

So let’s stick to the should question… I am going to write this in the form of a Q&A just because it makes the most logical sense in my head right now, feel free to write it up more thoughtfully!

Should people be allowed to vote online, with their phones, tablets or laptops?

I believe that the answer to this is definitely yes

Is this just to increase voter participation?

No. Not at all.

Why then?

This is to ensure that those who prefer to use digital tools are able to, and that the feel-good factor of sharing participation in a representative democracy is extended to the community tools we use in all other aspects of our digital lives. I am passionate about bridging the digital divide: not the one between those who do digital and those who don’t. I mean the perceived separation between online life and offline life. Community interaction, influence, learning and celebration is as valid online as it is offline – and the needs of the multiple digital communities must be met in their own space. This includes being able to vote digitally.

The analogue process of voting is not perfect, indeed as Bill Thompson said on the panel yesterday: “… paper ballots are broken in ways that we understand”, but it does the job and we are familiar with it. But there needs to be a digital way to participate in voting for a representative, because otherwise the most important part people play who live in a democracy is totally absent from where many of us choose to interact, learn, share, influence: in online community spaces.

Will being able to click-vote cheapen the whole process of democracy?

No more so than some of the behaviour we are familiar with in Parliament!! I would hasten to add that (especially young people) voting would be far more rigorously researched in an online environment. I would suggest that actually being able to vote online would do the opposite of cheapening the whole process, I think it would (or could), make people take it more seriously.

How do you stop undue influence being brought to bear with people standing behind others and forcing voting a certain way?

I mean, in the same way that someone could influence you walking into a booth and ticking a box, I see no difference because it is online. It is an illegal practice, and the person who was forced to vote online a certain way will have the same recourse to law as their offline persona has. It’s this old digital divide again – why does digital suddenly make illegal practice OK? It doesn’t.

In conclusion

It is up to those who are a part of a democracy to take their role seriously, both the representatives and the represented – and that has nothing to do with technology. But technology and digital information, communication and tools can greatly enhance and amplify active participation, and it is unthinkable that this could be ignored because it is a technical challenge.

Do we really have such little faith in the behaviour and morals of those in the democracy that they cannot be trusted to play their part unless forced to walk somewhere and be watched over by GUARDIANS OF THE VOTING PROCESS with their flip board and pens? If so, I think we have a greater challenge on our hands than representative democracy in a digital age.

The podcast of the BBC panel is available here for you to listen to the whole debate, should you fancy.

PostScript and disclaimer

I am writing this just purely from riffing the thoughts in my head, I am not writing this as Commissioner for Digital Democracy, although obviously my thoughts on this have fed into the Commission’s discussions. The report on Digital Democracy is being published next Monday, and covers many topics – I shall write more after it is launched about all of the other many ways that a representative democracy can work in a digital age.

7 responses

  1. Pingback: Digital voting and democracy: a Q&A with myself – Emma Mulqueeny | Public Sector Blogs

  2. Hi Emma,

    I agree that in principle this would be a Good Thing but the evidence to date is that it’s currently almost impossible to build something sufficiently secure.

    I suggest that before creating something like this for the general public, Parliament puts a version in place for Commons and Lords votes. That way we can ensure maximum attention paid to such issues with a relatively small number of people using such a system.

    As for:
    > I mean, in the same way that someone could influence you walking into a booth and ticking a box, I
    > see no difference because it is online.

    There is a major difference. With in-person voting you are in a private booth with a curtain and drop your folded voting card in a box. Only you know for certain what mark you made. With online voting someone can literally stand behind you and ensure that you vote in the way that they want.

  3. Pingback: 1 – Is e-voting a threat to Democracy? –

  4. First: you are right, absolutely!

    But you do not want online voting systems, you want more online systems that enable participation!

    Building ideas, writing texts and proposals, finding the right wording for laws, researching issues and finding solutions to problems are very positive collaborative processes that can be enhanced with online tools – but the current status quo dictates that electronic voting systems have to be avoided, no exception.

    Please accept that you can not separate the idea of online voting from technical issues. There is no technical way today to realize a system that conforms to the basic requirements of a democratic voting process. In fact, governments, especially USA and GB are actively sabotaging the development of secure computer systems that could ever be used for voting. Destroying crypto, infecting all the systems and backdooring everything is the best real life explanation why you totally do not want to have online voting – you have not been sleeping under a rock for the last two years, have you?

    But it is not only about tec, you are talking about one of many real life issues, there are some more, please follow the true path of “Hacker Ethos” and inform yourself deeply before following the white rabbits and eating the wrong pills.

    Again: YES, you want more possibilities for participation – but the actual voting process must be not electronic for now. Hacktivists around the globe know this, connect yourself and we can exchange some knowledge!

    Here is a good talk about the estonian e-votig system by J. Alex Halderman:

    Talking to him will give you a good background about research that is going on in this field:

    • Hi thanks for this. Am going to follow that link tonight and read up. Would be interested to pick up this chat after publication of the digital Democracy commission report on Monday that addresses all the other stuff you mention here. If you check out the link to the commission pages at the beginning of this post you will see the remit and breadth of the commission. I hear you, I just would be keen to see how far it goes in your mind to addressing some of these other points you raise here. Thank you though for your feedback!

      • The Talk of J. Alex Halderman is not only very interesting, it is also very funny. If you can not find the time watching it, here is the essence:


  5. Pingback: Digital Democracy - a blog by Emma Mulqueeny - Gnoname's North East Councils' News

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