Thursday, October 2, 2014

Debating Internet voting in the UK

The Internet is used for just about every aspect of everyday life. It is where people go to connect with one another through dating sites and social media. It is where people go to shop for the latest fashions and gadgets. It is where they go to get the most up-to-date news and opinions on world events. It's where they do their banking and even use a range of government services.

Given this, it is somewhat surprising that voting over the Internet, sometimes called i-voting and occasionally included in the broader discussion of e-voting, hasn't already been more widely implemented in more countries around the world. To further this discussion, Senior Political Correspondent Jason Farrell of the UK's Sky News recently engaged in an online webchat via Google Hangouts with three guests on the merits and challenges of casting a ballot via the web. The full replay of the 22 minute debate has been uploaded to YouTube.

In that discussion, WebRoots Democracy founder Areeq Chowdhury points out that it's almost a common sense point to modernize the democracy in the United Kingdom and bring it up to date by offering an online option for voting in elections. The Internet, as mentioned above, already infiltrates such a wide range of daily activities and to retain the archaic pen-and-paper method of casting a ballot as the primary method of voting feels incredibly outdated.

Indeed, just as Sir Richard Branson feels that the Internet is the future of voting, all of the guests on the program also support its adoption, but not without some hesitations. There is the risk of security threats for “hacked” votes that would compromise the integrity and legitimacy of election results. Chowdhury agrees that there are risks and there will be flaws. He also agrees that the lack of a paper trail to verify votes cast can also be worrisome, but he feels that the bigger risk at play is the risk of losing even more voters. The drop in voter turnout has been alarming and it needs to be address. The electorate needs to be more engaged with the political process and taking the vote online, along with other tools related to the election, can help to keep the modern political system relevant for voters both young and old.

To this end, Emma Mulqueeny of the Speaker's Commission on Digital Democracy feels that should an i-voting system be implemented in the United Kingdom, it makes more sense to look at the things that people are already engaging with online. She uses the example of social media, like Facebook, as a possible route for developing an online voting system rather than spending excessive amounts of money to develop a brand new system from scratch that could just as easily be riddled with flaws and problems.

In response to critics and naysayers who fear an online voting system that can be hacked by criminals, Mulqueeny says it is actually far easier to trace a digital footprint online, looking through servers and IP addresses, than it is to trace any ill-doing and tampering through paper ballots. It is harder to be completely anonymous on the Internet. Chowdhury agrees that everything has flaws and nothing is 100% secure, but people are still willing to utilize services – online and offline – that are equally as insecure as an online voting system. The issue is whether or not you can secure it to an adequate level.

Perhaps one of the most telling perspectives came from National Youth Council in Estonia member Marju Tamp as Estonia has been a leader in the I-voting revolution for a number of years. She says the security has been “flawless” and the Internet-based voting has been a very positive experience overall. Surprisingly, the older generation is actually accepting i-voting more happily than youth in her country.

Internet voting offers a compelling possibility in the United Kingdom and throughout the rest of the democratic world. Watch the full 22-minute Stand Up Debate from Sky News on YouTube.