E-voting coming back to life?

The announcement last month by House of Commons Speaker John Bercow of a commission on digital democracy has kicked the debate over e-voting back to life in the UK.

For many years it has been a rather odd debate in the UK because, all too rarely, this is an area where (back when Labour was in power) large sums of money were spent on extensive pilot schemes before, based on the evidence gathered, the idea was dropped. It is how policymaking should work: have an idea, test it and then make a decision based on the evidence.

Yet the evidence gathered through those pilots has since almost completely dropped out of the debate, as if mere evidence doesn’t matter when you can spin exciting tales of technological change, young people and the future.

Of course, technology and our attitudes to it move on, so the failure of those previous pilots to show that e-voting raises turnout to any significant extent does not mean that will necessarily always be the case. Other lessons, however, have a timeless nature.

First, any e-voting technology that requires a special IT set-up just for an election is inherently fragile. Setting up (and then dismantling) an IT system each of the relatively rare times an election comes round is loaded with risk and cost.

Second, and related to this, e-voting needs to be evaluated in the context of not just whether the technology works but also how reliable the systems for managing it are likely to be. The pilots threw up plenty of issues about technology requiring management skills that the electoral administrators did not have. That is a recipe bound to lead to problems – which is why e-voting is not just about the technology, it is about its practical management.

Third, e-voting has to reach a far high quality standard than systems of apparently equivalent importance, such as financial ones. That is because voting is secret and so – unlike your bank account – no-one knows what the result should be and no-one has other documentary evidence to show whether or not it is right or wrong (unless there are printed ballot paper receipts, though even those only audit one small part of the system). You know if your bank account balance is wrong – and can trigger remedial action. No-one knows if an election result is wrong.

If the Speaker’s commission is to do a good job, it will need to study each of these three issues carefully.