Richard Berry wrote in 2016 about the use of online voting in the NHS Foundation Trust elections where the public got to vote for who ran local hospitals:
Few democracies have so far introduced online voting for regular elections, with Estonia the most notable example. Much closer to home, e-voting is widely used in NHS elections, specifically for the election of governors of Foundation Trusts. Although run privately, these elections are in effect choosing senior representatives at major public agencies responsible for billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, and therefore provide in important test of this reform. E-voting is not universally available, with many NHS trusts still relying solely on their more traditional method of postal voting. But its introduction means that NHS elections are, technologically speaking, far ahead of regular public elections in the UK.
As part of the Health Election Data project, I have assessed the popularity of e-voting at NHS elections held during 2015. Elections in 55 constituencies were included in this assessment, with a further 47 ‘offline’ elections used for comparison. Overall, the findings suggest that while there is slightly higher level of turnout at elections offering e-voting, only a minority of voters prefer to use this method.
Overall turnout impact
The turnout effect of e-voting – perhaps the key measure of interest to political reformers – appears to be marginal. In the NHS elections taking place in 2015 that I examined, the overall turnout at those offering e-voting was 17.1%. At elections where voters could not vote online, it was 16.0%. In an era of declining electoral turnout, this might be considered a small but significant difference. But it is impossible to ascribe the higher turnout to e-voting alone, without further data demonstrating its impact over a number of years.
That minimal impact on turnout (which doesn’t look to be statistically significant) matches the experience in the UK trials pre-2010 when online voting was tested out council elections. Then too it wasn’t the magic turnout booster that its proponents usually present it as.
Why mention this again now? Well, e-voting has been getting a few mentions once again in political circles recently and what’s odd, to be polite, about those mentions is not only how little attention they pay to the positive story on turnout at the moment but also how little attention they pay to past experiences of using online voting in the UK.
One thing that, however, does raise turnout is postal votes. Another is the boring detail of polling station location. Boring (so boring it got consigned to footnote 261 and the middle of a list titled, excitingly, “Other matters arising” of a Parliamentary report). But effective. Unlike our experience of e-voting which grabs the headlines but hasn’t been effective.