The government have cited security concerns, but the only thing securing a postal vote is an envelope
8-14 Feb 2016 is heartunions week. To mark the week, Left Foot Forward are running a series of articles about trade unions. You can find out more at heartunions.org
As you may be aware, the Trade Union Bill is currently going through the House of Lords, and many are campaigning to modernise regulations to allow unions to hold online ballots instead of solely postal ones.
Despite every major political party in the UK, the NHS, top universities, and global stock exchanges using online voting, the government has so far opposed amendments to the Bill to allow unions to update their voting system on the grounds of security concerns.
According to a recent YouGov poll, the online strike ballots reform is one backed by the majority of the British public. It’s also a reform backed by the former business secretary, the ex-head of the Civil Service, and the Institute of Directors.
Online voting is something trade unions have been requesting for several years, but the case for modernisation is now stronger than ever.
The latest figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on digital access reveals that daily internet usage in the UK has more than doubled in the past decade.
The total number of adults that use the internet everyday or nearly everyday is 39.3 million. The ONS data also shows that 96 per cent of 16-to-24-year-olds use the internet ‘on the go’ indicating that the future is likely to be even more digital than it is now.
Paper and postal services are looking to be on their way out, too, as the nation works together towards a paperless, environmentally friendly way of doing things, and embraces the ease and accessibility of the internet,
In 2008, the government commissioned an independent review into the postal services in the UK. The resulting report entitled ‘Modernise or decline’ found that a ‘digital revolution’ was contributing to the structural decline of the postal sector.
They found that, compared to postal mail, digital alternatives are immediate, flexible and have ‘often zero’ marginal cost. A review in 2013 by PwC predicted that the letters market will fall by billions of items over the current decade.
The government is itself on a mission towards a ‘digital by default’ paperless method of utilising public services.
In a speech around this time last year, former cabinet office minister Lord Francis Maude said the following:
“Digital services are 20 times cheaper than over the phone, 30 times cheaper than by post, and 50 times cheaper than face-to-face. But it’s also an opportunity to create better services: more responsive to people’s needs and more convenient to use. If you can shop online at midnight and bank from your smartphone, then you should be able to renew your passport or view your driving record just as easily.”
So if the public is able to access and update information as sensitive as their identity documents and driving records online, shouldn’t they be able to cast votes on strike action online?
Of course, the security concerns around anything digital should be taken seriously, and it is something I have looked into at great length through my experience campaigning for online voting to be introduced as an option in elections.
Last month, WebRoots Democracy published a 30,000 word report examining the key security challenges facing the implementation of online voting covering areas such as cyber-attacks, voter coercion, and malware on devices.
The report, Secure Voting, backed by MPs from across the political spectrum and written by global experts and academics in the electronic voting field, provides assurances on security backed by decades of experience in cyber security.
A common theme throughout the study is the strength online voting systems can have when compared to current methods such as postal voting, which has a number of potential security flaws. The only thing that is securing a postal vote is a gummed envelope.
However, whilst online voting can present some new challenges with regards to security, it also provides new methods of securing the vote, too. One interesting idea put forward in the report for example, is the idea of ‘repeat voting’, which lets voters vote as many times as they like, with only the last vote cast being counted.
This is a method intended to reduce the risk and impact of being peer pressured by others to vote in a certain way; a safeguard which does not exist with postal balloting.
Other ideas put forward include the use of voter verification tools such as the government’s GOV.UK Verify, as well as the use of live-monitoring of the voting system, encryption processes, and a block chain based public bulletin board to ensure that the votes received are the same as the ones that were cast.
This involves similar technology to that which is used for the cryptocurrency, Bitcoin.
So while security concerns are something which should be addressed by any organisation that decides to bring their operations into the modern age, it is not an insurmountable challenge.
In a country where there are 8 million more adults online than in employment, it seems nonsensical for opposition to online strike ballots to continue.
Areeq Chowdhury is the chief executive of WebRoots Democracy