Ahead of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU and fears that the turnout could be low, especially among the young, Nora Eckert takes an international perspective on whether online voting could be the answer to a global problem with getting younger people to vote.
Generation Y goes by many names and labels: Millennials, narcissists, tech-savvy, but the overwhelming buzzwords that seem to be associated with 20-somethings are laziness and apathy. This reputation is not helped by our voting records. For the past twenty years, 18 to 29-year-olds have had the lowest voter turnout of any generation in the United States. According to an Ipsos MORI study, in the 2015 British General Election, those aged 18 to 24 years were half as likely to vote as those aged 65 and over.
It seems intuitive that in a digitally active yet politically inactive generation, online voting could be used to catalyse a tremendous increase in voter turnout. In fact, a 2014 study by Webroots Democracy states that youth voter turnout could have been increased from 44% to 70% in the 2010 UK general election if online voting were implemented.
However, using this sort of technology opens up the risk of a slew of security concerns, from voter fraud to the manipulation of election results. Although areas of the United States, Norway, and Estonia have implemented such technology in varying degrees, none of these trials have proved secure enough to prompt widespread use. In a simulation of the system that the Estonian government uses, a research team was able to penetrate safeguards and manipulate the voting turnout. According to a report by The Guardian, some of these fraudulent actions included “taking over voters’ PCs to cast fake votes, and hacking into the vote-counting servers to install software that would alter the final count.” The inadequacy of the security systems is not just limited to the software, but to the human practices and error surrounding the software. Although limited, these few trials would seem to indicate that the procedures and technology to ensure security in online voting do not currently exist.
But beyond contemplating the practicalities of online voting, it is more important to consider the fundamental reasons behind low voter turnout. By instituting a more convenient but less secure system, I would argue that the problem of voter apathy is not addressed but merely concealed.
First, let’s consider why online voting is being promoted: it is a way to make voting more accessible to all and more appealing to the younger generation. However, perhaps it is more important to change notions surrounding the voting process and try to eliminate voter apathy at the source rather than attempt to cover the problem by making it more available to all. If disability or work hours are the main constraints keeping people from getting to the polls, then alternative voting techniques should be considered more seriously. However, if voters do not vote because they do not feel informed enough to make a decision, or simply cannot be bothered to, making voting more accessible would introduce a whole other problem of having a population of active and uninformed voters.
Other viable reforms other than online voting include keeping the polls open for more than one day, or extending voting hours, or making election day a holiday. All of these options allow a politically active population to do their civic duty, especially if the reason for not voting is based on hours of one’s job or other scheduling issues. These methods would maintain the current security of the election system.
Perhaps the most negative outcome of online voting would not be the potential security concerns, but mobilising a population of uneducated yet active voters who treat elections with the same seriousness as they would any online poll. Maybe the ceremony of waiting in line and stepping into the voting booth on election day is needed to draw a serious, dedicated, and qualified population of voters. Much more important than the process itself is the systemic issue of having an uninformed and often apathetic population of voters, and therefore any innovation with regards to the practicalities should be accompanied with consideration of the other factors to encourage and enable people to taking voting seriously.
Nora Eckert, student, St Norbert College, Wisconsin, USA