Managing UK elections – could technology help prevent voting issues?

People make choices online every day for virtually every step of their lives; whether it’s as simple as ordering pizza or more complicated, such as buying a car, applying for a passport or taking out a loan. So why when it comes to voting are we still using the archaic methods of pencil and paper? 

It’s easy to question this, especially when you consider the poor turnouts at the polling stations - due to everything from bad weather to those who are abroad and didn’t register for a postal vote in time. In the 2015 UK general election, a huge 21 per cent of voters didn’t vote because they didn’t have time to get to the polling station. 

The younger vote is even more affected by the lack of online provisions, whether it’s due to issues such as living in short-term, rented accommodation - which makes them less likely to appear on the electoral register – or not having the time to get to the polls. In 2015, just 43 per cent of those aged between 18 and 24 voted, compared with 76 per cent of those aged 65 and over. 

How much easier would it be to vote online rather than getting up for work extra early, queuing through your lunch hour or adding to your commute home? WebRoots Democracy, says online voting could increase the turnout of 18 to 24-year-olds by up to 70 per cent, and the overall turnout would increase by up to 79 per cent. The organisation also claims online voting would save £12.8 million, as it would replace the need to spend the whole night counting votes by hand. 

What role does technology play? 

Some countries already offer an element of online voting, especially those with rural communities such as Australia and Canada. Computers play a role in virtually all major U.S. elections. In some polling booths, people may touch a computer screen to select their chosen candidate. In other states, there might be machines in the back room that read the paper ballots. 

In the UK, however, technology plays a small role. Every local authority has an electoral register, but there’s no online electoral roll; so to check you’re registered to vote, you have to contact the local electoral registration office. But you can register to vote via an online form. Then once registered, your local authority sends a polling card telling you where and when to vote. If you haven’t received or lost your polling card, you can still vote in person on election day - you’ll be given a ballot paper to mark with a cross your party of choice. 

So why aren’t we digitising our elections more? 

These methods seem somewhat low-tech in our internet age, but online voting is a far bigger and more complicated step than we realise. It’s not that it hasn’t been considered - the UK has run trials in the past, with positive results – but security experts say there’s no guarantee that online voting will be both secret and secure. It just isn’t simply possible now due to issues around security and voting machines. There are too many questions: how safe and reliable are computers - both those used by people to cast their vote and to process them afterwards? Could the machines get hacked? And can computerised systems fully protect voters’ rights?

For example, Estonia adopted online voting in 2007 and by the time of their 2015 election just over 30 per cent voted online. However, an independent report into how the system worked found massive technological problems and gaps in security. Norway trialled online voting in its 2011 and 2013 elections, but voter concern over security ended those trials. Meanwhile, cyber security concerns put a stop to France allowing citizens living abroad to vote online.

There are many things that could go wrong from cyberattacks influencing voting to system privacy issues and websites crashing through everyone trying to vote at once. Graham Cluley, security expert, commented in IBTimes UK, "Computers need more maintenance than a pencil and paper. Computers are more expensive than a pencil and paper. Software can contain bugs and vulnerabilities." 

Caitriona Fitzgerald, chief technology officer and state policy coordinator for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., told ScienceNews that the online systems, “…are not necessarily 100 per cent secure. And with our elections we need to make sure it’s 100 per cent secure.”

But what about the problems with our current voting system? 

Our current system isn’t necessarily robust either. In the last General Election in 2015, a proportion of people who were registered to vote couldn’t get access to polling stations as their records weren’t up to date. The London Borough of Hackney, experienced problems the week before polling day that affected many electors who had applied to register online and subsequently didn’t get their registration confirmed or receive either poll cards or postal votes. 

Approximately 1,300 applications had either not been added to the electoral management system for Hackney, or had been added but not processed even though these applications had been made prior to the registration deadline. Following subsequent investigations, it was concluded that action needed to be taken on the electoral management system. Processes needed to be significantly improved to ensure that all application data is tracked throughout. 

In the 2016 Mayoral elections, voters were turned away from 155 polling stations because their names were missing from the poll list. One station said that of the first 30 voters to show up, only three were on the register. 

Could similar things happen on 8 June 2017? There are 45,766,000 voters in the UK but getting all of them on to the electoral register isn’t easy.  

In June 2014, a new system was introduced allowing every person to register their vote individually – and for the first time, they could register online. Previously, one person – often the head of the household – was responsible for registering the votes of everyone else who lived at the address. The shift to individual registration is the biggest change to the electoral registration system in 100 years. However, it did mean that universities and colleges could no longer block-register students living in halls of residences to vote, which is another potential reason for the recent drops in younger voters.

Another challenge was transferring all the voter details to the new register. Existing voter details had to be checked against the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) database or local data. Then if there was a match, the voter details were “confirmed” – and automatically transferred to the new Individual Electoral System (IES) and sent a letter. 

However, a total of 42.4 million electoral register entries were sent for matching against the DWP database, and 5.5 million of those existing electors got lost in the system, having not been automatically transferred. And between the matched and non-matched groups, there were 7.5 million people who weren’t registered at their current address and may have been on the register at all. Voters whose details could not be transferred automatically needed to re-register but unconfirmed voters could easily have dropped off the register if their new applications weren’t made by December 2015. 

Some Government systems, instead of missing people, have an excess. Conversely, figures from March 2016 identified 57 million patients held within GPs’ records, but census data suggests this should have only been 54 million. Who were these extra three million people, and how can there be more people on GPs’ books than exist?

In the latest election, problems have already started as numerous Plymouth voters were sent the wrong polling cards a few weeks ago. Some people who registered for a postal vote received both a postal poll card and a polling station card, which would be used to vote in person. Apparently, this was due to a printing error. The city council is investigating - and has reassured concerned voters that poll cards alone do not give a right to vote and postal voters won’t be issued with a ballot paper. Meanwhile, voters in Staines have been sent polling cards printed with the wrong polling station locations – three miles away - and cards sent out for the Stratfield Mortimer referendum incorrectly stated the details for the 2017 general election. 

Could technology help avoid these problems and make the voting process easier to handle? 

The biggest challenge with the current voting system is that records can be held in multiple places. Alongside any central electoral system, data on voters can be within specific and local applications, databases and filing systems. 

Building a ‘Single Citizen view’ (SCV) could help to manage the records of voters more easily. These silos of data should be used to build up a personalised and accurate view of each individual. By putting SCV in place, the electoral role would be able to connect more effectively with the people they serve (the voters), maintain real-time insights and improve the performance of the voting system.

The SCV can also be used for compliance too. If a request for data deletion comes in (GDPR’s Article 17 – Right to Erasure), the SCV can provide a complete set of records that can be used for managing the request and dramatically reduce the amount of work required to comply with data protection. It’s also possible to estimate how many sources of individual data exists and the amount of time to process a request for data deletion. 

Depending on the level of manual intervention required, the current cost for the Government to process each data deletion request properly within each system could be hours. Automating these steps across each system should save time – and money - on top of not needing each system to be checked for records in the first place.

The thought of online voting in 2017 may have seemed plausible. However, in light of today’s increasingly sophisticated and numerous cyberattacks, the threats posed by a digital vote outweigh the gains. Instead, taking a single-minded approach to data and getting a single customer view in place should make it easier to manage the voting registration process. This not only helps everyone to make their voice heard on important issues but should reduce the cost to manage such a critical set of data over time.

Martin James, Regional Vice President, Northern Europe at DataStax
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