The end of voting as we know it?

Pat Chapman-Pincher posted this on

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Will this be the last election when we vote with pencil and paper? Could it even be the last time we vote as we know it – and data analysis could form future governments?

The wonderful Josie Rourke, Artistic Director at the Donmar, is always an inspiration. She made some comments about voting in a Times article about her election night play “The Vote” which got me thinking.

Josie Rourke Twitter image

The play is being streamed live on TV in the hours before the polls close and has plenty of technological and theatrical challenge. Watch it if you can – after all what else is there to do while waiting for the results!

What she said about the future of voting was “you realise how comprehensively we are known through our data, and one of the things you might draw from that is that voting will become irrelevant, because our preferences and decisions will be measured moment by moment through our data tracking”.

Voting is one of the few areas where technology so far has had almost no impact and bizarrely it’s one of the areas ideally suited to it.

We have just moved on from the 18th Century show of hands by generally drunken voters but we have only moved on to paper and pencil. You go into a booth and make a cross on a piece of paper. How 19th Century is that?

Admittedly the electoral role is still on-line but everything else is paper. Paper voting slips that are then laboriously counted, and sometimes recounted, by human beings. Human beings are not very good at those sorts of tasks and the logistics mean that getting the results of elections takes hours.

We seem to have steered away from on-line voting because of the fear that it could be hacked. There is a good piece on this on BBC online where which quotes the constitution minister, Sam Gyimah, speaking to the House of Commons in January 2015. He said: “I feel [that] moving to electronic voting would be a huge task for any government. We can’t be under any illusion that this would be easy to achieve.” Remote voting was “incredibly rare” around the world and would require a “very robust and secure” system, Gyimah said.

Instead effort has been focused up to now on online registration, at a cost of £100m.

desk with laptop

Yet it is really clear that the current paper-based system can be manipulated. So why not go for secure on-line voting? After all a significant percentage of the population banks on-line, so why not vote on line? It would be faster to count and give people time to think and possibly research more deeply.

There are always those without computers at home but that is a dwindling number and there are ways of dealing with the problem. If we followed Australia’s lead – which introduced mandatory voting in 1924 – and had mandatory voting here, then we might have a more active democracy.

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But I go back to the original comment from Josie Rourke. If so much is known about us from our preferences then should we vote at all? Could we, by the analysis of big data simply deduce what people would have voted? Could the next government be formed without a vote? It’s a fascinating thought. The technology is almost there.

Would it get us better, more representative government?

This election will be fought on the old lines but I wonder in 20 years time how we will be voting, if at all.

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