‘Much of the way we vote in elections has remained unchanged for over 100 years. Modernisation takes place across all aspects of society and now is a good time to think about the kinds of innovation people in Scotland would like to see in elections. We already have electronic counting for local government elections. Is it the time to think about going one step further and introducing electronic voting? Could a new approach make voting more inclusive and increase turnout? How do we best increase voter registration?’
The Scottish Government is committed to improving its online services and as part of the Digital Strategy for Scotland has undertaken to explore and trial the potential of electronic voting solutions to:
- increase voter participation;
- provide voters with choice and flexibility over how they vote;
- reduce the costs of elections;
- support the rotation of candidates’ names on ballot papers; and
- reduce the number of rejected ballot papers.
The way in which people vote – on paper and mainly in local polling stations – has remained largely unchanged for over 100 years. In contrast, the way that citizens interact with both private and public organisations in other aspects of their lives is increasingly based on digital technologies. For example:
- internet shopping and banking;
- mobile phone applications for travel on buses or as aircraft boarding passes;
- touchscreens at supermarket automated checkouts and for travel tickets.
That ^^ is from the Ministerial Forward to the Scottish Government’s consultation on Electoral Reform which ended in March. Trialling electronic voting is also an action in the Scottish Government’s Digital Strategy for Scotland. So the Electoral Reform guys are asking people what they think about electronic voting while the Digital guys are saying they’re going to trial it anyway and one hopes that doesn’t mean consultation feedback is sitting at the bottom of a bird cage.
Those of us working at the intersection of government and technology will be cringing at drawing parallels between internet shopping, electronic bus tickets and voting. We get hit with this stuff over and over again: ‘We want it to work like Amazon’, having to flag the misconception that ‘digital transformation’ will be a cost saving exercise and that If You Build It They Will Come. There’s nothing quite as soul destroying as having to take forward a digital project from someone above you that feels like reaching for a digital silver bullet. The naivety and oversimplification can be frustrating and worrying but it can also be a big fat hopeful place to converge from. How might we make interactions with politics and government as normal, convenient, slick and attractive as online shopping?
Jumping to a digital solution makes sense because most ministers and civil servants are not technologists but it’s likely they bank online. It makes sense because government sees low engagement everywhere, not just with voting. It makes sense because government is generally pretty terrible at public engagement and involvement and they’ll want to find ways to improve that. But is e-voting the way to solve the problems of low voter turnout, high cost of elections, currently having no ability to rotate candidate names on ballot papers and high levels of rejected ballot papers? It might be and it is definitely something worth exploring. But this is a lively discussion that to date has been dominated in Scotland by technologists, academics, suppliers, activists and politicians who are focused on concerns around fraud, cyber attacks, mishandling of data, privacy breaches and, wait for it…. blockchain! I’m not saying these things aren’t important, I just don’t want to talk about them. Other people who are much more knowledgeable than me are discussing these things.
This is my jam: citizen involvement in discovery and co-design. Where are citizen voices and non-academic, non-technologist voices in these discussions? Conspicuously missing so far in the e-voting chat seems to be, well, folk. What are people saying about why they don’t vote? Are active citizenship and political engagement levels the pits because there’s no electronic voting system? A consultation isn’t going to cut it either, folks.
I have a unique perspective on e-voting in Scotland. From January 2017 to February this year I was working with the Democratic Society (Demsoc) to support Scottish local authorities in using a small set of online platforms, including voting platforms, for participatory budgeting. As far as I am aware, Demsoc and Young Scot are the only non-commercial organisations working hands on between government and citizens to plan and design voting processes that are carried out online. To be clear: the voting processes I was involved in were not for the purpose of elections and the design of each process was unique to each council. However, there are insights, challenges and opportunities that are relevant to anyone thinking about electronic voting in Scotland for any purpose.
I’ve been sitting on this blog post for months. It’s been sitting on me like a bag of bricks but I haven’t published it until now because I have a lot of thoughts about the Scottish Government exploring e-voting that I can’t quite untangle enough to articulate. I also didn’t know where I fit in the academic/technologist/activist mix because what I want to bring to the table are stories of what e-voting looks like on the ground, the stories of citizens and council staff trying to navigate new technologies and new relationships. Ahead of an event at the Scottish Parliament today with a ‘panel of experts to shape the future of online voting’ I want to throw my two pence in because I can’t go along but I’d love to be included in future conversations. So, it’s messy but screw it, here goes…
People who don’t vote and who are not generally politically engaged are the experts on why that is. People who don’t use the internet in the ways you might assume they do are experts on why that is. Talk to them and include them in this discovery process.
Public sector workforces
Take it from me, introducing new technology and new ways of working with and for citizens is going to be a steep learning curve for our public sector workforces. Our institutions do not equip them with modern devices or systems and it impacts their ability to conceptualise possibility or functionality, to be creative, to feel confident and to teach others about new technology. Talk to them and include them in this discovery phase.
It’s not the answer, especially when the problems haven’t been properly defined or investigated. I’m pretty excited about the exploration of e-voting in Scotland but I’m equally as anxious that this will be another ill-fated technology project that isn’t given the time and critical thinking it needs. There is a stack of human and social issues to consider here. If someone feels disaffected, disenfranchised and generally thinks politicians are clowns then no amount of technology is going to help that. I’m anxious e-voting exploration will act as a distraction from some of the human issues behind low turnout and lack of strong, thoughtful, inclusive engagement by government.
On identity assurance/verification
Identity verification was a *huge* challenge in the participatory budgeting e-voting work, not just technically (we don’t have a national ID system to anchor to) but philosophically. In my experience it was usually people on local authority side who were *very* resistant to collecting information from citizens with which they could allow electronic verification. The platforms we were using in Demsoc were simple and voter registration usually looked like a typical name, username, email, password flow to a verification process. Misunderstanding of GDPR and DPA, refusal to discuss privacy-by-design principles as a place from which to grow and evolve digital engagement practice and IT departments being IT departments meant this was the single most frustrating conversation with councils I’ve ever had. It’ll be interesting to see how it’s handled or worked around in e-voting pilot phases.
Offline engagement considered more valuable
A surprising number of people I met on the digital PB project considered online voting far less valuable than voting in person. One experience will always stick with me and that is the decision of one group organising PB in a city to give people who voted online one vote and those who voted in person two votes because they ‘bothered to turn up.’ This was not an uncommon conversation/debate. Just a flag.
It seems to me there are some juicy internal linking and knowledge sharing for the Scottish Government to do between the e-voting crowd, the Online Identity Assurance crowd, the Social Security crowd and the Local Governance Review lot at least. There’s a good amount of user research going on between ID Assurance and Social Security and it’s likely that over the three there could be a lot of knowledge and intelligence sharing to be done. Will there be linking and sharing internally?
Please work in the open
I’d like to make a plea to the Scottish Government to please work in the open during e-voting discovery. It’s so important for transparency, accessibility, inclusion, documentation and the rest. It’s also reputationally risky *not* to work in the open while this work is going on. Check out DEFRA’s guide to agile communication for some information about how and why. I know this is something that is difficult for civil servants to start doing but there’s a whole community of people inside SG and outside through the OneTeamGov network who would love to give you some peer support- including me!
Please discover, prototype, test, research and design well
This is all a bit of verbal diarrhea but it’s what I want to say for now. Here’s hoping things go as well as they can…