Boxing in the voter
In the brave new world of touchscreen democracy, spoilt ballot papers are neither permissible, nor possible.
We in the UK are constantly reminded that we live in a democracy – mostly by our dear leader Mr Blair, as he ticks off all those non-democracies that irk his kindly spirit so much. Unwholesome, authoritarian places like Iran, Austria and France….
But the UK is a democracy, a representative democracy, where our occasional fire-and-forget votes inspire MPs and councillors into mighty works, long after we have dragged ourselves out of the polling booth and back into the pub.
Yet – and this causes much hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth among the political classes – so many of us choose not to vote, citing disgust, disappointment, bewilderment or boredom; translated by our betters into the catch-all face-saver: apathy.
So to stir the fires of democracy such radicals as House of Commons leader Robin Cook aim to re-badge leftover interactive games from the disastrous Millennium Dome as ‘e-voting’ terminals. No longer will our sole reward for that polling station trudge be a scrap of paper and a tooth-scarred HB pencil; no, tomorrow’s plebiscite will feature the white heat of yesterday’s IT, coming at ya in 72 dot-per-inch touchscreen clarity.
E-voting, and e-counting, is with us today, trialled at over a dozen boroughs across the country. Pull back the magic curtain at the local elections on 2 May and those mildewed polling booths will fair crackle with life, as your traditional X in a box is replaced by your digit prodding a computer screen.
But it isn’t a direct translation. E-voting will no doubt attract a few kids who can’t cope with the perseverance demanded by dragging two strokes of graphite across dead trees – although if the youth vote is sought, why not reduce the voting age to 16, or abolish it entirely? And e-counting will certainly speed up the whole election process, even if poor Peter ‘Swingometer’ Snow is put out to pasture as a result. And yes, money will be saved, and fingernails too, as those armies of tellers are driven back to their bingo halls.
Yet across the country, something is also being lost – the ability directly, publicly, in black and white, to exchange those two scratched lines for two bolshie fingers raised squarely against the whole sorry business. In the brave new world of touchscreen democracy, spoilt ballot papers are neither permissible, nor possible.
Judging by figures from recent elections, perhaps one in 200 votes cast are announced on polling night as ‘spoilt ballots’. But most are not the output of the dimwitted or deranged.
Talk to any returning officer and, amid the stories of papers smeared with chocolate, marmalade and every bodily fluid, not to mention racist slurs, intricate doodling and all manner of graffiti, comes regular mention of a simple sketched box, a slashed X and the legend: ‘None of the above.’ It’s instant, iconic, universal and challenges all claims to inclusiveness made by our increasingly isolated and elitist politicians.
Moreover, spoilt ballot papers cannot simply be dismissed, as stay-at-home votes can (but shouldn’t be), as the result of apathy. Even so, the write-in rejection of a political process that rejects grassroots concerns and street level movements is generally dismissed as either a wasted or protest vote. A protest vote? Well hey Robin, what other kind is there?
However, the new e-voting system approved by the government, via its Department for Transport, Local government and the Regions (DTLR), pointedly excludes any capacity for such a statement. At the urging of the Electoral Reform Society it is possible to register a blank vote – perhaps comparable to mooning our leaders, rather than proffering the Agincourt salute of old – but the addition of any comment or, as is common in the USA, the name of a preferred candidate, is prohibited.
Do we care? Does disenfranchising a few thousand malcontents matter? Well, we don’t know if the voters care, because, as is the way with British democracy, the voters haven’t been asked.
In east London, Newham Council’s spokeswoman, when asked to outline the consultation process that led to its decision to pare down democracy, was more than happy to discuss the informational battle bus touring the borough, the evening classes and educational leaflets that told voters, in 10 languages no less, how to vote. Yet she was unable to recall an occasion on which the council had asked voters if they wanted to change….
Not that central government asked for local consultation. In fact, a spokeswoman for the DTLR indicated that consensus among councillors was all the department required – the assumption being that all shades of opinion within a borough finds a voice in the council chamber. A laughable enough assumption across much of the country, but particularly so in Newham, where our narrow first-past-the-post system has for some years delivered 60 out of 60 council seats to Labour.
Back in Whitehall, the DTLR claims to have consulted the great and the good, and pressure groups thereof, but essentially this is a done deal. Blink and you’ll miss the consultation paper, blink twice and you’ll have voted for the Euro; retinal scan voter ID is on the cards too….
Street dissent, whether in Washington, Genoa or Oxford Circus is nowadays equated with terrorism. Voting outside the democratic consensus is anti-democratic. Wearing the wrong tie is akin to preaching regicide, and now, the last small, quiet, private rejection of the whole sham is to be digitised out of existence.
E-voting is not quite the e-democracy cyber-radicals hoped for, but then democracy is not quite freedom.
Frank Fisher is a freelance journalist specialising in developing technologies and their social impact (email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
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