Voting
A worker counting ballots after polling stations closed for the EU referendum in Islington, London on 23 June 2016.Reuters/Neil Hall

The first time I became aware of electronic voting was in Mega-City One, where the Weather Congress collated the citizen's daily weather vote. Generally, the public opted for hot and sunny, but occasionally a decent shower to cool the place down and wash the streets. It was the 1980s, I was a boy and the dystopian Mega-City One was located, harmlessly, in the pages of 2000AD, the inspired sci-fi comic of my generation. Three decades on, though, it feels as if the time may be right for fact to fuse with fiction and to reflect on how we vote as well as what we vote for.

Our digital lives continue to broaden: Britain is now a smartphone society, and it isn't just young people who are embracing mobile technology. Last year, Ofcom reported that smartphone ownership among 55-64 olds had more than doubled from 19% to 50% since 2012. Regardless of our age, we bank, shop and find love, something to drive and somewhere to live via our mobile phones, and yet we rely on a voting system that's remained much the same for hundreds of years.

Electronic voting around the world has taken a number of forms – from optical vote-counting machines, touchscreen-based voting machines at polling stations and online voting using smartphones. Estonia is the country that has forged the most progressive path. Since it's independence was restored 25 years ago, it has become one of the most sophisticated digital societies in the world.

The country that gave us Skype introduced not just coding, but also robotics to seven-year-olds in 2012, and has evolved in to a remarkable example of just how far e-government can be taken. Whether parking a car, having a prescription filled or voting, Estonia's digital foundation reduces the friction in accessing services for their tech-savvy population. At the heart of their democratic process is electronic identity.

As well as an electronic ID card, Estonia has implemented a mobile phone-based version of the ID card, Mobile-ID. In 2011, Estonia was the first country in the world to allow m-voting, with 3% of votes cast by mobile phone. In the country's 2015 parliamentary elections, more than 30% of votes cast were done so via the internet.

Estonia's President Ilves has emphasised that one of the advantages of using the Mobile-ID system for voting is the ability to cast a vote from any geographic location. With some British ex-pats claiming to have been disenfranchised due to ballot papers not arriving in time to cast their vote in the EU referendum on 23 June, any initiative that increases voter participation appears worthwhile, and particularly the participation of young voters, who have the longest time to live with the results of the historic vote.

It isn't possible to ascertain how many young people voted Remain as voter ages aren't recorded, but in urban areas of London such as Camden and Haringey, which have a median age of 35 or less, the results show significant support for Remain. It is the young, and even those who haven't yet reached the age of majority, who've been most vocal in their disappointment at the outcome of the referendum. And it is these same people who, in the lead-up to the referendum, felt isolated from the debate because of the political jargon and the extreme nature of arguments from both sides.

Brexit: Jean-Claude Juncker clashes with Ukip leader Nigel Farage in European Parliament on 28 June 2016IBTimes UK

In January 2016, the WebRoots Democracy organisation launched its Secure Voting and its continued call for online voting to be introduced in Britain for Local and General Elections. Chloe Smith, MP for Norwich North, an advocate of electronic voting, said at the launch: "It's alien to young people, and indeed to anyone who appreciates the capability of the internet. It's also ineffective: we communicate online with people all the time, but we lack the final 'one-click' to clinch the deal in democracy when the time comes."

WebRoots' report followed the 2015 publication of Open Up!, the report of the Speaker's Commission on digital democracy that recommends that secure online voting should be an option for all voters by 2020. Britain has the technical and infrastructural capacity to take voting online, but there is also the opportunity to reform how politics is presented to the voter, and in doing so making it more inclusive and accessible.

Bitcoin and voting

Security and the verifiability of the individual's vote have been the most significant counter-arguments to online voting. Even with its e-government success, the security of Estonia's voting system has been criticised. Manual voting systems, although also susceptible to interference, have a built-in audit system, given the nature of the physical ballot.

However, technology has given us Bitcoin, and the blockchain ledger system that makes Bitcoin reliable and secure appears an obvious mechanism for creating online voting systems that are secure and verifiable. Blockchain technology customised for online voting could even allow voters to check for themselves that their vote has not been interfered with and has been recorded as intended. The blockchain has already changed global finance, and it's likely to impact on other sectors, such as land registry, where the verifiability of a chain is a crucial requirement.

To be truly impactful, smart voting has to offer more than just a secure means to vote. In the the US, at South Carolina's Clemson University, Professor Juan Gilbert led a team in a notable project that created tablet-based voting software, specifically to enable voters with disabilities to vote more easily. There is contrasting evidence as to whether internet voting would increase voter turnout, but the implementation of a 'smarter' voting system could attract younger and casual voters.

What should a smart-voting system do?

For a week before a general election polling day, a voter could sit at a personal computer, or use a tablet or smartphone and log in securely, using their National Insurance number. Once logged in, they would see the candidates in their constituency listed clearly on the screen. Tapping on an individual candidate's name or photograph would allow the voter to review the candidate's parliamentary attendance record and their voting history.

Tapping an 'expenses' icon would allow the voter to drill down to review the candidate's claimed expenses, or tapping on an 'interests' icon would present the candidates entry from the parliamentary Register of Members' Financial Interests. Utilising the Parliament TV archives, a voter could review videos of the candidate's contributions in parliament or at committee hearings. The system should help voters to decipher political jargon and understand not just more about the candidates in their own constituency, but also how the the party system works and how Westminster functions. Putting information and education at the heart of a smart-voting system would surely lead to more engaged voters.

The benefits for voters are obvious, but candidates and parties large and small should benefit too. Campaign expenses should be reduced, smaller parties and independents would have a more even platform for presenting their message to voters, and if there were a window of polling – let's say a polling week rather than a polling day – candidates could focus events and messaging for early and later voters separately. Voters could vote early, but they could also change their minds, more than once, before polling closes on poll-close day.

If the British public adopted smart-voting in similar numbers to voters in Estonia, it would also create a remarkable resource for opinion polling mid-term or sporadically on matters of national importance or interest. A smart-voting system should allow opt-in opinion polling by voters as they register. The ability to poll the opted-in voters at agreed intervals could be made available to authorised polling companies and political parties with access by commercial organisations charged for, helping to offset the cost of maintaining the smart-voting system.

Pollsters and smart voting

Pollsters haven't had a good run predicting the intentions of the voting public over the last 14 months, so commercial access could provide more accurate information for media outlets as well as business owners. The benefit for politics generally may be particularly interesting, though. If infrastructure improvements were being contemplated in specific regions, the residents of only those areas could be polled for their hyper-localised and relevant opinions. A smart-voting system could help foster a more engaged public and develop a more consultative government.

The diplomat and philosopher Joseph de Maistre is credited with saying that 'every nation gets the government it deserves', and perhaps he was right. But following the extraordinary events of the last seven days, is now the time to ask if Britain has the voting system it deserves?


Andrew O'Donoghue is a technology journalist and broadcaster. He has worked in the technology industry for 20 years, including a decade at Apple. He now writes on technology, contributes to a number of radio stations and is the series editor of The Gadget Buzz on Ireland's TV3 channel.