Why online voting creates more problems than it solves

Election Polling Station SignAThere’s a new law in politics: whenever there’s been an election with a disappointing turnout (so, pretty much any time there’s an election in the UK) someone will pipe up with ‘we should vote on the internet, that’ll boost turnout’. Someone (occasionally me) will point out that there are lots of problems with the idea of online voting, most notably that creating an online balloting process that’s acceptably secure and secret is the sort of problem that stumps computer scientists.

The response is usually to wish away these problems (which, to be fair, is something even MPs do) and assert that because we can do other things online, we should be able to vote. Now, I could try and explain here why voting is different to banking or shopping, but others have done the job for me, so take a few minutes to watch one or both of these videos:

(The Princeton TED talk is longer and goes into more detail, while the Computerphile one is more entertaining, but they complement each other nicely)

The important point to note is that our current system of voting wasn’t created from scratch but evolved over time through various innovations that have helped to improve security and protect the secrecy of the individual’s ballot. It’s a process that gets regularly stress-tested (usually every May, with other localised tests throughout the year) and has proved that in most cases it can deliver what it needs to (unless you live in Barnet, of course). For online voting to have anything like the same degree of reliability, there are a whole lot of practical issues that need to be resolved. People – like me – who don’t want the sudden adoption of online voting aren’t doing it because we get some nefarious thrill from driving down turnout but because we have genuine concerns that it can deliver the secure and secret election process that everyone desires. I’d love to be able to vote online, but I’d also love to be able to fly and I’m not going to jump off a cliff in the hope I figure out how to do it before I hit the ground.

In the meantime, if you want to boost turnout in elections, there are other ways to do it. You could give councils more powers, so people regard voting for them as more important. You could change voter registration laws to make it easier for people to be automatically registered when they interact with any form of government. You could invest more in running elections to enable more information to be sent out to voters about what posts entail and who the candidates are. You could move polling days to weekends or make election days public holidays, so polling stations are open when people have more time to get to them. You could even adopt an electoral system that makes an individual’s vote more likely to count to motivate them to vote. Sure, none of these match ‘do it on the internet’ as the magic bullet that will solve all problems, but none of them introduce a vast range of new problems either.

Democracy is hard work, and making sure it runs smoothly is a complicated process. There are rarely trouble-free shortcuts to making complicated processes that run important things simple, and online voting is no exception. If you’re convinced it’s wonderful, then you have to address its flaws and people’s concerns, not wave them away because they’re inconvenient truths.