“By 2010, you just might be able to vote in your pyjamas”. That was the headline of a 2006 Guardian article that proclaimed electronic voting was just around the corner.

By the 2010 general election, not only was the entire population still voting with paper ballots – in its street clothes, at that – but also over 1,200 people were denied a vote when polling stations weren’t able to cope with high voter turnout.

At the time, it seemed that the scenes of long queues of angry voters might have been Britain’s ‘hanging chad’ moment; the tipping point that would jump-start reform of Britain’s Victorian voting system. Yet, despite the public outcry, over a year on there’s little evidence that reform of the voting system is on the political agenda. 

‘E-voting’, as it’s known, is a catch-all term for any electronic element in the voting process. India and Brazil use e-voting in their national elections, which amounts to all votes being collected and counted using electronic voting machines. E-voting in other countries means remote voting through the internet. Advocates argue that both forms of e-voting speed up the casting of votes and the counting process.

In the aftermath of the US presidential election of 2000, billions of dollars were invested in electronic voting machines that both record and count votes. But complications became apparent early on, from difficulties standardising data between jurisdictions to machine fallibility. 

In 2004 in Ohio, machine malfunctions resulted in votes being lost and even longer queues at the polls. There were ongoing concerns about the potential for fraud, particularly when all votes were recorded and counted electronically without a paper trail to enable manual audits. Electronic machines can be vulnerable to security breaches, as computer scientists from the University of Michigan demonstrated by hacking into Indian voting machines and altering election results.  

Electronic voting machines are useful for speeding the count, but it’s unclear as to whether it is much faster at collecting votes than paper ballots. A number of US states decided to dump their electronic systems in favour of paper ballots with optical scanners for quick tallying of votes. 

Estonia and Switzerland introduced remote internet voting at the federal level, and Canada has used it in a number of municipal elections. The threat of viruses and denial-of-service attacks were the prevalent worry before the introduction of the systems, but through a number of election cycles there have not been any significant security breaches in any of the participating countries. This has been attributed to rigorous testing before implementation, along with multiple layers of security safeguards, such as passcodes, security questions, encryption and certified and secure websites and servers. These countries also experienced an increase in voter turnout across all age groups once they introduced e-voting, but particularly among the young.

The UK launched a number of internet voting pilots from 2002 to 2007. Though the Electoral Commission identified enough weaknesses in the aftermath of the trials to recommend that no further trials continue, the issues mainly revolved around short timelines for implementation and mismanaged projects. The results of the internet voting, specifically, during those pilots were a great success: there were no crucial security incidences or fraud reported, and 87 per cent of the people who used it thought it should continue in the future.

Ultimately, it was overcrowding at the polling stations that was the issue for the 2010 UK election. To remedy that, internet voting, as an additional method to the paper ballots, could provide the most promise for easing traffic at the polls. If the government is happy to trust the internet for filing tax returns, surely it can trust the internet for casting votes? 

Meanwhile, the most recent evidence suggests that the British people would be enthusiastic about the opportunity to vote on the internet. A survey last year found that more than three-quarters of the electorate would vote via the internet if they could. Given that 73 per cent of UK households have an internet connection at home, and the UK is equipped with plenty of public internet access points, e-voting could be available for anyone who wants it. Introducing the system would have the added bonus of being more compatible with the lifestyles of today’s electorate, while boosting voter participation.

What of the 2010 general election debacle? Has it already been forgotten? Maybe the government hopes voter turnout will return to its previous lower levels so it won’t be an issue again. Or it simply plans to beef up staffing levels at polling stations next time around to prevent the bottlenecks that stopped people from casting their ballots. 

It’s possible that the 2010 election will go down in history as the catalyst that pushed Britain to update its flagging voting system and ensure that no citizen is ever again denied the right to vote. Then again, if the government won’t lead, perhaps it is time for the people to rise up and demand the right to vote in their pyjamas.

Melanie Batley has worked as a US political operative and as a Conservative Party researcher

Tags: Brazil, Electoral Commission, Electronic voting, Indians, Voter Turnout