Friday, June 5, 2015

Reviewing the 2015 UK General Election

The general election in the United Kingdom wrapped up early last month with Prime Minister David Cameron being selected for another term and the Conservative Party earning a majority in the Commons with 331 total seats. This was a shock to many political pundits and analysts, but more relevant to the context of this blog, much can be said about the continuing development and implementation of electronic voting technology in the 2015 UK election.

Leading up to the general election, there was much discussion about the future of elections in the United Kingdom particularly in terms of the adoption of electronic voter registration, electronic voting and even Internet voting. This continues to spark an ongoing debate about modernizing the democracy and bringing it up to the 21st century. It has been said that the more widespread use of technology in the democratic process would encourage greater citizen participation, particularly among the younger demographic. Recommendations have included the implementation of a two-step verification process for voter authentication and the creation of a central voting website.

But these are looking ahead to the future with an optimistic outlook of implementation in time for the 2020 General Election. What actually happened with the 2015 General Election? The United Kingdom has made significant strides, particularly when it came to an online system for voter registration. A last-minute rush saw nearly 470,000 people register online in just a 24 hour period, breaking the all-time record.

Despite progress in enabling the people of the United Kingdom to add their names to the official voter roll via the Internet, such progress was not witnessed to the same extent in other areas of modernizing the British election.

For Britons who are currently living abroad, the process for casting a ballot is frustrating and time-intensive. It takes so long, in fact, that many such individuals could not participate in the 2015 General Election because their postal ballots did not arrive in time. This is despite registering as much as two months in advance for individuals living as nearby as the Czech Republic or Spain. “Large number of citizens abroad,” said expat voting rights blogger Brian Cave, “have not received any ballot papers for the election.”

A secure online voting system with proper voter authentication could have overcome this major problem.

Even when voting in person, the UK electoral infrastructure faced significant challenges. Some polling stations had to turn away many voters who indeed had their polling cards but were not showing up in the electoral roll due to IT glitches. The voting systems need to have the proper audits and checks in place so that such errors simply do not occur. An electronic polling station connected to the central database could have rectified such issues.

Another fatal flaw of traditional paper ballot-based voting is the increased likelihood for spoilt ballots. This was precisely the case in the recent UK elections as an estimated 27,500 ballots were rejected, mostly because these voters ticked more than one candidate. Because of the secret ballot, the voters whose ballots were rejected were never informed that their vote would not count. This “voter confusion” could be avoided with a well-designed direct-recording electronic voting machine, as the software would be configured to accept only the correct number of inputs from the voter.

Looking ahead to the next General Election in a few years, the electoral officials in the United Kingdom still have a lot of work to do. Thankfully, they have some time to work out these problems and to start developing and implementing better, more modern solutions for casting a ballot. Internet voting, which 63% of those polled by YouGov stated would boost voter turnout, should be seriously considered. The UK would also benefit from better systems for the electoral roll, as well as the move toward offering direct-recording electronic voting machines in lieu of paper ballots. Democracy can only work when the infrastructure is working at its best.