It is hard to look back at 2016 without allowing the political upheaval in the United Kingdom and the United States to cloud your recollection. The year marked a turning point in the nature of our engagement with elections; polls proved inaccurate, fake news was prominent and voting systems were called into question.
As a result, election systems are now at the forefront of public opinion and in the agenda of law makers and election commissioners. On 6 January, 2017, the US Department of Homeland Security declared election infrastructure as critical. And in December 2016, the UK Government had announced plans to combat election fraud.
Having the highest levels of government of two of the world’s most emblematic democracies discuss election administration is something we celebrate. If these announcements lead to an open and frank conversation about the future of election systems, we will all gain from this.
After the US Presidential Election, campaigners and election experts raised millions of dollars to hold recounts and examine voting machines in key battleground states. But despite all the buzz, results from the recount in Wisconsin were clear, technology proved to have done its part. The small difference of 0.03 per cent between the original tally and that of the recount mainly point at the humans making mistakes when counting manually for the discrepancy. At the end, ‘errare humanum est’.
This recount only reiterates what we, as advocates of election modernisation, have been emphasising all along: well-designed technology is simply more accurate and more secure.
A recent survey commissioned by Smartmatic showed that the majority of those who voted in the US election want to see investment made in new voting systems and technology, and believe that tech progress will increase their trust in elections. Eight in ten voters and nearly ninety per cent of poll workers believe upgrades to the nation’s voting technology will increase and strengthen the public's trust in elections.
The call is clear. The US should upgrade its voting systems using more technology, not less.
In the other side of the Atlantic, the situation is somewhat similar. During the past few elections, the UK experienced its own issues with the country’s manual voting system.
In the aftermath of the EU Referendum cases of electoral irregularities drew headlines, driving a call from election officials for more stringent controls of the voting process. In December, moved by accusations of voter impersonation, it was announced that voters could soon be forced to present their ID, whether this be a passport or driving license, at their local polling station.
The disenfranchisement of expatriate voters has also raised concerns in the UK. It is estimated that approximately 5 million Britons live abroad. Yet, only a fraction (around 300,000) are on the electoral roll, and they depend on the inconvenient and unreliable postal voting to exert their right to vote.
Why should voting be stuck in the dark ages when there is technology readily available, worthy of increased trust in the system? Biometric voter authentication and online voting for overseas voters could be easily implemented and leave these problems behind.
Our data shows that technology would increase youth participation, halting a worrisome downward trend in participation, as the young have engaged less and less with the antiquated electoral process. Smartmatic’s polling of 18-24 year olds in the UK showed this age group is the least confident on how to register to vote, use a postal vote, find and use their nearest polling station and delegate to a proxy. Fifty-seven per cent of 18-24 year olds said that voting online would make them more likely to vote, the highest of any group, while fifty-five per cent said they would have used it at the last general election.
Whether it is inaccurate results, electoral fraud or low participation, our research shows that current voting systems need to be updated. Paper and pencil are not enough in an age of digital pervasiveness.
As two of the world’s beacons of democracy, the US and the UK are called to take the lead in the modernisation of election processes to make them more inclusive, transparent and efficient.
Trust in elections also matters. A strong, effective democracy relies upon the knowledge that representatives are elected via a reliable and secure system. We need technology to restore confidence in elections and bolster democracy.
Image Credit: Maksim Kabakou / Shutterstock