The prize is a future of mass participation in the local affairs of the nation, instead of the lacklustre voter turnout that’s long become the norm. But although a world where we vote on everything from politics to monetary union with Europe via a PC, TV or mobile phone seems inevitable, society at large may have other ideas.
In this year’s local elections around seven areas will be testing different methods, including electronic voting via screens placed in public kiosks, text messaging, the Internet, and using the keypad on a normal phone line.
The trials are to address the alarming drop in voter turnout at last year’s general election, to less than 60%, the lowest since 1918. Worse still, in local elections just 31.2% voted in 1999. Robin Cook, chairman of the cabinet’s e-democracy committee, argues that the trials could lead to a way of making voting easier and more appealing to younger voters, who think the existing system primitive.
Already people are getting used to voting electronically. The huge polls for TV shows Pop Idol and
Big Brother are evidence that the public actually gets quite excited about e-voting, and has done so in massive numbers by telephone, SMS and online.
But outside the freer world of TV voting, several hurdles remain in the realm of digital democracy. Online voting would certainly attract ‘black-hat’ hackers interested, or perhaps even paid, to influence the results. And electronic systems have to be able to prevent and detect identity theft – harder when the voter is hidden from view on a PC at home. The Liverpool pilot, which is being run for the Government by the US firm Election.com, will attempt to get round this by using numbered passwords and PIN numbers sent in sealed envelopes to voters’ homes.
The problem throws-up the issue of digital identity, and hence the old and politically difficult problem of identity cards in general. In Europe it’s commonplace to carry an ID card. In Sweden you can’t even use your credit card without showing your ID. But in Britain we’ve never acquired the taste.
David Blunkett, the home secretary, is consulting on introducing an ‘entitlement card’ for people to gain access to public services, but this is bitterly opposed by civil rights campaigners. For the moment the jury is out on whether this would be a carrot big enough to persuade us to start carrying a card. Furthermore, the rise of the extreme right wing in politics may even put paid to e-voting if there’s even a hint of a chance that online voting could be easily manipulated.
But until the Government gets serious about ID cards, which are bound to have a digital ID aspect, it can’t get serious about e-voting. And that’s a political issue, not a technological one.