I was listening to the radio this morning and on came a debate about the governments proposed change to the minimum threshold of voting to allow strike action, the government want a minimum of 40% of eligible voters to support strike action for it to become legal. Now that is a debate in itself but the interesting part for me was a representative from the TUC speaking about their proposal for greater involvement by their members that included online voting, the government minister was less than enthusiastic.

This got me thinking about the less than universal approach government has to the use of technology. The unwillingness to allow online voting whilst embarking on a policy of digital by default, universal access and moving services online appears at best a missed opportunity and at worst a suspicious manipulation of the system. You either believe in universal access and the migration to a digital by default environment or you don’t, choosing digital to provide savings for government but not for extending inclusion in the democratic process looks like political tinkering to me. Currently you can vote in person, by post or via a proxy but not electronically.

Embracing technology to enable greater involvement in both national and local politics feels like a sensible next step and long overdue, after all there is an acute problem in this country with political participation. Voting in elections is at a record low, the vote for Police Commissionersbarley reached 20% in most instances, seriously undermining the legitimacy of those who take office with such a low level of endorsement. Right now, less than half of 18-24 year-olds vote and the results for the 2010 general electionshow a huge discrepancy between voting and age. 

Only 44% of 18 – 24 year olds vote against 76% of over 65’s, leading to policy making that will inevitably favour older voters. The government is spending billions of pounds of tax payers money rolling our superfast broadband and committed to substantial reforms in the way it delivers services with almost no support for those who will find their services going digital. According to Go On UK, nearly 20% of adults lack basic digital skills and the largest single demographic of this group are those aged over 65. 

The practical arguments for not introducing online voting don’t stack up which makes this a purely political choice. Online voting would almost certainly be cheaper and extend the democratic process to segments of society that are currently disengaged, there is no reason why security and identity assurance issues can’t be overcome, other countries do it and we have already agreed that you can perform other transaction with government online, why not extend this to voting?

My suspicion is that the governments reluctance to introduce online voting could be perceived as a way of maintaining the status quo for those in power, after all the system is set up to overly represent an older demographic and introducing a system that is potentially more representative of the population and not just those to vote would be hugely disruptive and force policy makers to address a much wider range of policy issues and make potentially unpopular trade offs. 

Surely technology presents the opportunity for a different kind of political debate and the tempting possibility of extensive participation in politics.

Lets not just put government services online, lets put democracy online.

Smart Islands in a Dumb City