Pushing the wrong buttons

E-voting pilot schemes at the UK local elections are a hi-tech way to make politics passive.

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

When UK prime minister Tony Blair announced the possible implementation of electronic voting in the next general election, chancellor Gordon Brown allocated £30million to be spent developing the necessary technology.

This week’s local council elections were used to pilot the technology, with 1.4million people given the opportunity to vote electronically – via digital TV, mobile phone text messaging, touch-tone telephones, the internet, and electronic kiosks (1).

It’s hard to get excited about technical methods of voting – as the Guardian wryly put it: ‘Contain yourselves, but more people will have more ways of voting in England’s 1 May local elections than ever before.’ But the government is seriously hoping that its voting innovations lead to a greater turnout. In the words of local government minister Nick Raynsford, ‘the government will be monitoring the impact of these pilots with great interest’ (2).

The government’s interest is unsurprising, when you consider the disastrously low turnout in the UK’s last general election. Even now, the true extent of this turnout is being revealed to be lower than previously thought – a new report by the Economic and Social Research Council indicates that only one in five young people who were eligible to vote in the 2001 election did so (3). Add to this the fact that little more than a third of the electorate voted in the 2002 local elections, and the government has serious cause for concern.

Will this new technology work, as a way of boosting turnout? It’s hard to say. But even if methods like e-voting and postal voting, both of which designed to make voting less of a hassle, do make more people vote, they contribute to a diminished sense of what voting means. Voting becomes increasingly presented as a passive activity, involving little effort and even less engagement with politics.

As I have argued previously, the wrongheaded notion that information technology will reinvigorate politics is part of a desperate attempt by the political elite, in the absence of any great political ideas, to connect with the public using technology (see State machinery). Such initiatives have been going on for some time now, but this week’s local elections and the campaigns leading up to them represented a new low in dismal attempts to cajole the public into voting.

East Northamptonshire Council, for example, distributed 5000 beer mats to pubs in the area, with ‘It’s not a dirty word – VOTE’ written on them. A spokesperson for the council said: ‘If they pick up a beer mat in the pub, and take it home before the election, it is a constant reminder and hopefully that message will sink in.’ (4) Such is the passion and conviction behind political debate in Northamptonshire.

But that’s nothing compared to Blackpool, where a giant illuminated ‘vote-o-meter’ has been erected to reveal the returns in the city’s first all-postal ballot. ‘The council hopes the 11-foot tableau outside the town hall will jolt residents into exercising their democratic right’, reports BBC News (5). If this initiative proves unsuccessful, can we expect Blackpool council to erect a 20-foot ‘vote-o-meter’ to ‘jolt’ the residents next year?

So high are levels of interest in new methods of voting, that no fewer than three pieces of research have been conducted in recent months attempting to show that information technology can boost the public’s engagement in politics.

A MORI survey showed that 55 percent of adults would be more willing to vote if they could do so electronically, and that among those aged 18-24 – the age group that the government is most desperate to connect with – such methods would encourage three-quarters to participate. Another survey, published by Hedra, suggested that over half of young people would be more likely to vote if they could do so via the internet. And a survey conducted at the University of Wales, showing that the web is the most popular news source for 18- to 25-year-olds, concluded that the internet is an essential means of attracting young people to politics (6).

Such research is not without its merits – it is indeed interesting to find out that people would be more likely to vote if they could do so using a particular method. But this says more about declining engagement in politics than it does about the merits or significance of whichever voting method proves most popular.

So it is wrong to draw the conclusions of Hedra’s deputy chairman Stuart James, who argues: ‘E-voting has the potential to re-engage young people in the political process. It could also improve the quality of political debate and lend weight to the election result.’ (7) A preoccupation with something as apolitical as a voting method can never ‘improve the quality of political debate’ – it can only downgrade the importance of politics in an election.

By concerning themselves with voters so politically unprincipled that they decide whether or not to vote according to how much of a hassle it is, politicians increasingly disassociate voting from any matter of political conviction or principle. In seeking to counter declining levels of interest in politics, they actually hasten the decline.

As the technology commentator Bill Thompson puts it: ‘The government’s continued obsession with e-voting in its many forms, especially voting over the internet, is a perfect illustration of how style has triumphed over substance. Instead of finding ways to make people believe that voting actually matters, they want to reduce it to the level of texting a friend or buying a book online.’ (8)

Many commentators have criticised this week’s electronic voting pilots, because of the scope for rigging the elections – either through people exploiting shortcomings in the technology, or through people exploiting the greater opportunities for coercing voters outside of the ballot box. But the danger is not so much that electronic votes can be rigged, than the fact that a preoccupation with electronic voting sells politics itself short.

The concern over vote rigging also reflects a predisposition to see the political process as inherently corrupt. For example, The Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) has warned that technical problems with electronic voting could destroy public confidence in elections: ‘If problems occur, levels of public mistrust could make Florida voters’ worries about “hanging chad” look trivial’, says FIPR director Ian Brown (9).

Public mistrust in politics, and fear of that mistrust harboured by politicians and others, are mutually reinforcing. They do not result from shortcomings in technology, but are fundamental to the broader political climate. Prospective election scandals are neither a reason to support electronic voting nor a reason to oppose it – the fact is, there is no technological solution to cynicism about politics.

Even if the patronising initiatives and new voting methods piloted this week succeed in increasing voter turnout, this success can only be achieved at the expense of any political significance that the election results might otherwise have. Rather than obsessing over snazzy new voting methods and begging us to vote via beer mats and billboards, politicians would do better to give us something worth voting for.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: Election 2001

(1) Elections to test e-voting schemes, UK government, 24 April 2003

(2) E-vote early, e-vote often?, Matthew Tempest and Martin Nicholls, Guardian, 17 April 2003; E-voting pilot given go-ahead, UK government, 23 January 2003

(3) First-time voters ignored election, Sean Coughlan, BBC News, 22 April 2003

(4) Beer mat plan to boost voting, BBC News, 16 April 2003

(5) Will ballot trials woo back voters?, BBC News, 25 April 2003

(6) Voters ‘keen on e-election’, BBC News, 29 April 2003; Switching on the wired generation?, Robert Andrews, BBC News, 27 March 2003

(7) Voters ‘keen on e-election’, BBC News, 29 April 2003

(8) E-vote early, e-vote often?, Matthew Tempest and Martin Nicholls, Guardian, 17 April 2003

(9) FIPR warns of e-voting risks, Foundation for Information Policy Research, 1 May 2003

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Topics Politics


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