[Dave Birch] We all agree that democracy is a good idea and that letting people who are stupid and/or uninformed decide how the country should be run is much better than letting (for example) me decide how the country should be run. We all think it is most amusing that the American franchise is populated by voters with especially nutty views, but no-one seems to think it odd that they are allowed to vote.

  • 13% of voters think Barack Obama is the anti-Christ;
  • 29% of voters believe aliens exist (so do I – I just don’t think they’ve kidnapped anyone from Arkansas to date);
  • 4% of voters say they believe “lizard people” control our societies by gaining political power (someone you trust is one of us);
  • 15% of voters say the government or the media adds mind-controlling technology to TV broadcast signals (the so-called Tinfoil Hat crowd);
  • Just 5% of voters believe that Paul McCartney actually died in 1966
[From Conspiracy Theory Poll Results – Public Policy Polling]

I was thinking about this because I was thinking about electronic voting. In my keynote talk at the Fourth International Conference on e-Voting and Identity, sponsored by Consult Hyperion and IBM UK, I said that the nature of digitisation is that we end up with new processes rather than analogs of analog processes. We don’t use iTunes to buy CDs, so the nature of the music business changes. The world music industry is now bigger than ever before (it’s just that sales of recorded music are continuing to fall, but so what). Think about this in the context of voting. We might start by using electronic voting to work in exactly the same way as non-electronic voting, for example.

Estonians today vote online and pay tax online. Their health records are online and, using what the President likes to call a “personal access key” – others refer to it as an ID card – they can pick up prescriptions at the pharmacy. The card offers access to a wide range of other services.

[From BBC News – How Estonia became E-stonia]

Why stop there though? Why not use electronic voting to improve the democratic process? While there are a great many different possibilities, I thought I would construct four scenarios for using an electronic vote along these lines to improve the voting process. The first is based on engaging young people, the second is based on the “Who wants to be a Millionaire” pub quiz machines, the third is designed to add convenience while reducing costs and the fourth is based on eBay.

The Provisional Vote

When the then Lord Privy Seal, Leader of the House of Commons, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and the Minister for Women and Equality (all the same person: Harriet Harman) said that she was thinking about giving the vote to 16 year-olds I was naturally horrified. As the parent of one at the time, I remember being puzzled as to why society would ask such a teenager about anything at all, let alone who should be running the country.

It did occur to me, however, that there might be an alternative. Just as teenagers can obtain a provisional driving licence, under which they can drive but only when accompanied by a driver with a full licence, perhaps they could be given a provisional vote. The provisional votes cast in an election would be tallied and reported, but they would not count toward the result. That way, young people can be drawn in the democratic process — getting what Ms. Harman called “the habit of voting” — and learn the mechanism of the ballot box, but their opinions would not bind the rest of us.

In this scenario then, young voters are encouraged to download the standard government voting app (I propose to call it “Angry Voters” or “Call of Duty: Democracy” or “MPcraft” or something like that) immediately after their 16th birthday. When an election comes along the government sends a reminder to the app and the teenager can then click a button or two to obtain their voting certificate. In order to encourage teenage participation in the democratic process, the app could show them a map of where the nearest polling station is and provide the occasional nudge to remind them to pop down there.

Up until their 18th birthday however, these votes would be provisional votes. The next morning the newspapers could report the result of the general election and also what the result would have been had the provisional votes been counted so that young people might feel that there preferences were being recognised.

We might find a way of integrating with social media too. Perhaps the app can automatically post an “I just voted” status update on Facebook or perhaps offer young people the chance to join various Facebook groups. I only belong to one such group (“Che Guevara was a murderer and your T-shirt isn’t cool”) but they might be a way of getting teens to at least engage in some of the key issues of the day.

The Informed Vote

Engagement is important for democracy, but it’s not obvious to me how we benefit from getting people to vote when they have no idea what they are voting about. A rather depressing Ipsos/MORI poll conducted in June 2013 and published on 9th July 2013 illustrates the extent of public ignorance.

  • Almost a third of people think that the UK spends more on dole than on pensions, when in fact it spends 15 times more on pensions than on dole;
  • A quarter of people think that foreign aid is in the UK government’s top three areas of expenditure, when it is in fact slightly more than 1%;
  • The public think that a third of the population are immigrants (it is around sixth) and that a quarter of the population are Muslims (it is around one twentieth).

In this scenario, I propose to encourage engagement and an informed populace by extending the voting app to include a game which is a little like the sort of “Who wants to be a millionaire?” machines that you get in pubs so that when the citizen enters the polling booth the app asks three quick questions and gives them a few seconds to answer each. These would be general knowledge questions of political economy. Nothing too vexing: just basic questions such as “who is the Chancellor of the Exchequer”, “how much does a pint of milk cost in Tesco today” and “what proportion of government spending goes on welfare”. That kind of thing. Each question would be multiple choice and the citizen would have a few seconds to answer. We might even have the system award some prizes to people who answer all three questions correctly in the shortest time.

The e-vote would be cast as normal, but with the twist that the vote would have appended the number of questions that the citizen answered correctly, and only those votes with a at least two out of the three questions answered correctly would be counted. This would hopefully incentivise citizens to read an occasional newspaper or watch the news on television from time.

The Continuous Vote

If people become more informed, that is a good thing but we still need to encourage them to exercise their democratic right. With an electronic voting system, there’s no real reason to restrict voting to a limited time or to specific places. The suggestion that the UK should look at the option of advance voting to allow people to cast their vote in secret at specified locations during a designated period prior to voting day (Electoral fraud in the UK–Èvidence and issues paper 2013) has already been made. But what about the places?

Electronic or otherwise, voting must be a public act otherwise we face the insurmountable barrier of coercion. There is no reason, however, for it to be in polling stations. What about using Post Office counters or bank branches? Surely it would be much cheaper to pay the Post Office or the banks £1 per vote cast than to spend the close to £100m that a general election costs now (and that doesn’t include the disruption caused by closed schools and so forth).

So, perhaps elections could take a week. Any time during that week, a citizen can pop into a bank branch and cast a vote at the counter. After all, the machine in the polling booth would just be, in essence, another mobile phone so the tellers at the bank branches could just as easily use them. I would let citizens change their mind as well. If I pop in and vote for the Monster Raving Loony Party on Monday but then on Wednesday change my mind and pop in and vote for the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist branch), or indeed change my mind ten times during the course of the week, then only my last vote would count.

The Transferable Vote

This kind of scheme ought also to provide a solution to the problem of proxy voting. This provides an alternative method of voting for those who are unable to vote in person in a polling station for reasons such as illness, disability, vacations, living overseas or serving in the armed forces, and who may appoint a proxy in advance to vote on their behalf. So I can’t vote, but I can pass my vote to my sister and she can go and vote for me.

Therefore votes have to be transferable.

Noting the common heritage of the kind of e-voting scheme assumed here and Bitcoin induces another thought experiment. If votes become a bit like Bitcoins, then why can citizens transfer them? There’s no reason why we couldn’t find a way to allow the voting app to transfer votes from one app to another. We could decide that it’s allowable under certain circumstances. I don’t think it would benefit society to allow “P2P” transfers because we’re trying to get away from the corruption attendant on for example postal votes. We don’t want husbands to be else to force their wives to transfer their votes to them any more than we want husbands to be to force their wives to accept their driving licence points for speeding. But we might allow authorised exchanges, whereby citizens transfer their votes to registered organisations.

Suppose, for example, that I find the democratic process confusing and exhausting. I know little about politics and genuinely don’t know who to vote for. But I like Greenpeace, and I trust them to make the right choices on my behalf, so I’ll pass my vote to them. I’d suggest that organisational votes are not blinded, so that in the pursuit of transparency anyone could log in and see where the Greenpeace votes went.

You can see how this might work in combination with social networking to create a kind of citizen engagement in the political process that makes sense. You might, for example, a Facebook campaign against, oh I don’t know, franking underneath the Surrey Downs. At the moment the best that a committed activist can do is write letters to The Guardian, but under a transferable vote system they could set about trying to collect votes for their campaign and then donate those votes en bloc to a politician who shares their distaste for inexpensive, local energy supplies.

Treating. A person is guilty of treating if either before, during or after an election they directly or indirectly give or provide any food, drink, entertainment or provision to corruptly influence any voter to vote or refrain from voting. Treating requires a corrupt intent – it does not apply to ordinary hospitality.

Definition from the UK Electoral Commission.

This triggers a final speculation. Under English law, political parties are not allowed to “treat” individual voters. Thus is my local Tory candidate were to offer me a bottle of champagne for voting for him, he would go to jail (although, oddly, not if he offered my favourite elderflower squash, because the law on treating only covers alcoholic beverages). It is, however, entirely acceptable to treat groups of voters. A political party can say to pensioners, for example “vote for us and we will loot the future prosperity of the nation’s youth in order to excuse you from contributing more to care costs” and that is fine. This is buying votes in a non-transparent way, but it’s still buying votes.

I think a more transparent approach would be better for democracy. So why not just take your transferable vote and put it on eBay? If I don’t feel strongly enough one way or the other on any issue, I might just choose to sell my vote — in an entirely above board and transparent way — rather than donate it to the English Defence League. Again, I would suggest that whereas the votes of individuals are blinded, the votes of purchasers (whether individuals or organisations) are not, so that it is a matter of public record as to how much was paid for each vote and to which candidate the vote was given.

So where next?

I think we have the technology. We have cryptography, mobile phones and biometrics. We can build a better voting system. But what should we use it for? What are the priority problems that we should be tackling first? In the UK, I think it is remote voting that stands out.

One of the biggest problems with postal votes is that they don’t guarantee you a secret ballot.

[From Mary Ann Sieghart: How dodgy postal votes may decide our next government – Mary Ann Sieghart – Commentators – The Independent]

That is not the only problem though. Our manual, paper-based electoral system is open to fraud at many levels. A random search of the UK newspapers for this month find this:

Nasreen Akhtar, who was a polling station clerk at the Madeley Centre Polling Station, in Arboretum Ward, yesterday admitted helping her nieces, Tameena Ali and Samra Ali, to cast fraudulent votes by pretending to be someone else. Tameena Ali cast her vote for the Labour candidate, Gulfraz Nawaz, in the name of Noshiela Maqsood, who is no relation, whereas Samra Ali left before marking the ballot paper. Maqsood, 24, then lied to police, saying she had personally voted.

[From Women admit election fraud | This is Derbyshire]

We (technologists) need to come up with a solution that makes this sort of thing impossible. Or at least detectable.  But with all of these problems, where do we start? According to an article in the 18th May 2013 edition of The Spectator (“My vision for Eurovision”, p.20), in Azerbaijan the Baku police tracked down and questioned people who used their mobile phones to vote for Armenia in the Eurovision song contest. This gave me a brilliant idea: why not use Eurovision as a testbed for secure electronic voting technologies?

Remote voting is a real issue in the UK right now and it is one of the key problems that electronic voting is supposed to solve. So let’s make the next Eurovision song contest a testament to British creativity, problem-solving and algorithmic excellence rather than a testament to our song writing. If we can create a world where people in Baku can cast a vote for [insert name of popular beat combo here] in safety and confidence, we will have achieved something.

These are personal opinions and should not be misunderstood as representing the opinions of 
Consult Hyperion or any of its clients or suppliers


  1. The difference between the provisional driving licence and your proposed provisional voting licence is that the driving licence does at least let you get from A to B whereas the voting licence requires effort and produces precisely nothing. While you undoubtedly have more knowledge of the teen brain than I do I can’t really see that being appealing to the already terminally demotivated. How about having that vote count towards a teen assembly that has lobbying powers on Parliament? Or weighting the vote so that a teen vote is 50% of an adult vote?

    Or just recognising that if you are old enough work, pay taxes (no taxation without representation), marry and join the army and get killed in foreign climes, you can probably vote at 16 too?

  2. “no taxation without representation”, Jane Adams on 19/07/2013 at 12:23, how about “no representation without taxation”?

    If you don’t pay tax, you don’t vote.

    And if you pay £2 of tax, you get twice as many votes as someone who pays £1.

  3. Stephan Shakespeare, for no discernible reason, has been given the job of establishing a national data strategy for the UK.

    He’s a pollster. The founder of YouGov. Ask him if healthcare data should be shared and he conducts a poll. 70% of respondents are in favour, he says, so that’s the answer – yes.

    What question did he ask? Who did he ask? … The questions start. Mr Shakespeare provides some additional information. The respondents to his poll were in two different groups. 18% of one group claimed to be highly informed, and 4% of the other group ditto.

    So 70% of people who are between 82% and 96% uninformed think that healthcare data should be shared. Not convincing to you, perhaps, but Francis Maude welcomed Mr Shakespeare’s “conclusion” as it helps him to press ahead with publishing/sharing all of our data.

    Polling is an alternative to thinking. And not a very good alternative, at that.

  4. So David Moss would be happy to lose his vote when he retires if his pension doesn’t perform as expected?

    In fact given that pretty much everyone in the UK pays VAT every time they go shopping, I don’t think David is going to exclude quite as many people as he’d like to.

    I do however think that this idea could be adapted so that if you use any offshore vehicles to reduce your tax liability you are deemed to have removed yourself from the British electorate.

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