Putting the e in Vote
By James Clifton, MISSION Group Chief Executive
Democracy in 2020 brings us a box-fresh British parliament and a looming general election in the US. And it’s off to a terrific start, with US Democrats screwing up the Iowa caucuses so badly that days after the event, they still couldn’t say who actually won the thing. Surely, it’s not that hard to count a few heads in a school gymnasium? My old PE teacher did it every period and, how can I put this politely, he wasn’t exactly bothering Mensa.
Regardless, this shambles is not helpful when we need voters to have greater engagement and more confidence in the democratic process than ever. It got me reflecting on the general state of democracy. Don’t worry! Not the political choices we’re faced with: post-Brexit, it’s still way too soon to go there yet.
No, I mean the actual act of voting and how we do it, which seems hopelessly outmoded, inefficient and amateurish for the 21st century. Are we really saying that we can’t devise a better way to vote than to scrape a mark on a piece of paper and pop it in a box in a local primary school hall, under the stern gaze of a retired colonel and two ex-dinner ladies?
One of the challenges western countries face is the apathy of younger voters and their lack of engagement in the democratic process. Turnout in the 2019 UK General Election was just 67.2% down from the 2017 election’s 68.7%. This isn’t new: turnout in the 1950 election was a whopping 84% and it’s dropped steadily until 2001’s nadir of 59.4%. But it’s the younger voters that are missing in action.
Interestingly, we’re not speaking about the very youngest voters – there are signs that Generation Greta are mobilising, spurred by the existential crisis of climate change – but, rather, the cohort of eligible adults mid-20s through to mid-30s, who are disappearing from electoral registers in droves across the west.
This is partly explained by their mobility in search of elusive jobs and their need to rent rather than buy a home, making it all too easy to fall off the electoral register. Experts also point to disaffection with spurious “endless” wars, the soaring cost of higher education and a bone-deep sense of ennui: the feeling that their vote makes zero difference.
They may have a point. Despite Boris’s healthy 87 seat majority in the Commons, he failed to win a majority of votes (just 42.3% of the popular vote). In fact, no UK Prime Minister has won a majority of the popular vote since Stanley Baldwin in 1931 (55% and, ahem, slightly before my time).
But the problem is that this leaves the decision in the hands of older voters, who both outnumber and outvote younger demographies.
But there is hope, of sorts. The 2016 Brexit referendum mobilised 72.2% of voters. And the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 got an 84.6% turnout. So, if people perceive a vote really matters, they will get off their butts, even the young ‘uns (albeit still under-represented in both referenda).
I can’t help thinking that if we just made it easier to vote then we could encourage more of the missing millions to shrug off their cynicism and take part. After all, we’re quite happy to vote for celebrities in jungles, dancing stars and hotties on islands so it’s not like we’re culturally averse to voting. It just needs to be easy and simple, like everything else these days.
So, why don’t we move rapidly towards universal digital voting, at least as an option alongside the traditional methods? If we could register to vote AND actually vote from our phone, tablet or virtual assistant, then wouldn’t that be a huge step in the right direction? If it proved easy and popular, we could possibly have votes on more issues, which might make the body politic less gridlocked and more grounded. Thus, encouraging more people to have their say. A virtuous circle.
I recognise there are legitimate concerns about security, reliability and fraud. But let’s face it, the current system isn’t exactly discouraging the hackers, as recent investigations on both sides of the Atlantic have proved.
And surely it cannot be beyond us, in a world of cryptocurrencies and massive international currency flows, to build a securely encrypted voting system? We run our houses, alarms, cars, tax systems, air traffic control systems and ballistic weapon systems from the Cloud, so why not our voting system? In fact, I have a couple of demon coders on staff who could knock you up a decent system, using facial recognition, fingerprint and/or retina scanning, in exchange for a beta copy of the next version of Fortnite.