Webroots published a report on the Cost of Elections last month in Parliament, and I was given the honour of being part of the panel to respond to it. The report made the argument that introducing internet voting would save money.
I had published a report earlier in the year, also called the Cost of Elections, showing that there was significant financial pressures on UK electoral administrators.
There was a really lively discussion which helps inform the debate on whether we should have internet voting in the UK and elsewhere.
This is what I said in my introductory response:
I would like thank Areeq for inviting me to speak and congratulate Webroots on the publication of the report. This is a very timely report for three reasons.
Firstly, it is timely because there is a need to modernise the way elections are run. Our polling place procedures essentially date back to 1872. So, forget the internet, this is before the invention of the lightbulb, the telephone and modern football (or at least my own football team, Norwich City didn’t exist then). Political science research shows how making voting more convenient can increase voter participation. There is therefore an obligation on central and local government to make the polling process as accessible as possible and change with the times. It should be noted, however, that there isn’t that much evidence that e-voting has increased voter turnout yet (here’s my study of the UK pilots on internet voting in the 2000s). But this could change with careful piloting and the YouGov poll in the report shows that it is popular with young people.
Secondly, it is timely because there is a need to consider how elections are funded, budgeted for and the money is spent. Earlier this year I published a report on the Cost of Elections with ClearView Research and an academic article in this month’s edition of the journal of Public Money and Management.
- We collected data on the budgets and spending of local authorities over the period 2010-11 to 2015-16. The findings were concerning. We found that local authorities are increasingly overbudget. During 2015-16, electoral services were running 129 per cent over budget on average. The introduction of individual electoral registration may have been a key cause of this since it added significantly to the costs of compiling the electoral register.
- This has important consequences for citizens because the areas that have seen more cuts to funding are less likely to undertake a public engagement strategy and marginally less likely to undertake school outreach activities. Democratic engagement activities have therefore been a casualty of austerity. A debate about how the electoral process can be more cost-efficient is therefore welcome, but we should be ensure that this doesn’t lead to cuts in services.
- In our work we also argue for stronger transparency in the financial accounts. We suggested that budgets should be routinely reported. This would be helpful for local authorities to see how much similar sized councils are budgeting for and spending on elections. It would allow under-funded areas to make the case for more money. It would also address some concerns that have been raised about Returning Officer fees.
Thirdly, the WebRoots report is timely because technology holds much promise in helping to solve some of the problems faced.
- I have to admit that I am sceptical as to whether internet voting will save money in the way proposed by the report because it would be essential to maintain existing services. We shouldn’t, for example, reduce the number of physical polling stations given that many people would still be reliant on them. We don’t want to ask them to travel further – because this could hit accessibility. There are always dangers in trying to save money by providing less stationary and staff in case there is an unexpected rush in turnout as there was in the 2010 General Election which led to some voters being turned away from the polls. If we had internet voting, we would need to have multi-channel elections.
- But there are other ways in which technology can improve the electoral process (see the Missing Millions report…).
- We can now register online, but we can’t check whether we are already registered online.
- Electronic voting and counting could reduce costs of counting process without introducing security risks.
- We could use electronic poll books to allow citizens to vote at any polling station.
- Rather than having hundreds of electoral registers across the UK, we could have one single national register.
- We could automate voter registration using other government records.
Costing the financial effects of internet voting is therefore a useful step forward in the debate towards a more modern electoral process, so I very much welcome the Web Roots report. Ultimately, the value of e-voting lies, however, in whether it can improve voter turnout, convenience and citizen experience in way that is secure. Elections can’t be run on the cheap and we should spend whatever is necessary to ensure a fair, credible and inclusive electoral process. The democratic process is simply too important.