Electronic voting and participatory democracy

The emerging consensus that e-voting should be abandoned is a mistake. E-voting could deepen our democracy enormously, as well as participation rates in elections, if only the right system were obtained and if only there were a will to engage citizens more in democratic decision-making.

E-voting was presented and seen as a gimmick, a way of speeding up counts at elections, thereby depriving television viewers of the blood-sport spectacle that long drawn-out counts provide. If properly established and configured, e-voting could permit citizens to vote in any polling booth near to them, not in any specifically assigned polling booth. That, on its own, would improve participation rates significantly. Electors would simply have to go into any polling booth, place their voting card number in the e-voting computer, which would then call up the ballot paper relevant to them, and register their vote. Polling booths could be established at shopping centres, at train stations, at airports, in schools and colleges, outside sporting or entertainment venues, anywhere, even in locations outside the country.

There is no reason why electors have to vote in specifically assigned polling booths anymore: the internet has changed that. We should be enabled to vote almost anywhere. However, the suggestion that one could vote in one's own home is a non-runner. There has to be some check that the person voting is the person entitled to vote and that voting is done in secret to prevent intimidations or coercion. So voting cards would have to be accompanied by identification and conditions of secrecy provided for voting.

Yes, this is more complicated than even the Noel Dempsey/Martin Cullen models. It involves not just reliable computers but reliable interconnections. But this has been accomplished in almost every other sphere of our social and business lives, so what is the big deal about voting? We transact confidential financial transactions on the internet, we operate our bank accounts on the internet (or some of us do), we book flights and holidays, we send confidential emails around the world.

And we don't need super computers, nor software that need be terribly complicated. All we need are basic computers (is it too much to hope that the Martin Cullen computers at least have minimal functionality?), a website that allows voters to register their vote in the appropriate constituency, and the communications infrastructure to send this to a central location. Also, of course, some officials who can check identifications and what each other are up to.

One reason for low voter-turnout is voters cannot get to their assigned polling booths in time, either because they are remote from these booths or are otherwise too busy at a time when they could get to those booths. Internet voting would change all that. So simple and effective could this mechanism be that it would be uncomplicated to involve citizens in a whole raft of other decisions, which might make meaningful the idea of the sovereignty of the people. Voters could be involved in legislation, in direct participation in approving the laws by which we are governed.

It may be argued this would be too cumbersome and make legislation hopelessly complicated and that anyway legislation is often very complex and it is not practicable to involve all citizens in approving it. This latter argument was one used for centuries against the very idea of democracy: "ordinary" people were not sufficiently versed in public issues to make meaningful choices. "Ordinary" people are perfectly capable of absorbing the essential arguments for and against particular pieces of legislation and deciding what they want.

As for being too cumbersome, what is so cumbersome about establishing a few thousand polling centres around the country every now and again, maybe ten times a year, and having people register their vote? And as for another argument that, inevitably, will be advanced – that it negatises the role of legislators – our elected representatives would have sole authority to instigate legislation and, unless they approved it, the legislation would not go to the people. There is now the electronic means to involve citizens more meaningfully in the democratic process. The "democratic" charade of involving citizens only once in five years to vote for a rag-bag assortment of candidates and a rag bag of policies, can be ended. Of course citizens would continue to be involved in the election of members of parliament, but the involvement can go much deeper, now that we have the technology to permit that, by having a far greater participatory democracy. E-voting should become an essential tool of that participatory democracy.

Vincent Browne