Postal ballots are supposed to encourage more people to vote, but Colin Beveridge believes it's the government that's being apathetic. Whatever happened to the idea of e-government?
It’s never very nice being a human guinea pig, but at least I’m not alone.
There are millions of us who have been unwittingly volunteered by the government for their latest psephological experiment, designed to address the growing problems of falling electoral turnout.
It seems that our political masters are not at all comfortable with voter apathy so they have now decided that universal postal ballots are the only obvious remedy. Which is why they have introduced a pilot scheme for all voters - me included - in the East Midlands, Yorkshire, the North East and the North West constituencies, who can only vote by post in this year’s European Parliamentary and Local Authority elections.
That’s right, we have to vote by post. By snail mail.
So no more popping down to the local infants’ school after work to make my mark on the crumpled ballot paper with a blunt graphite stick, in the privacy of a polling booth that looked like it had started life as a field latrine in one of the less fortunate backwaters of the Western Front in the Great War.
I shall miss those old Army blankets that shielded my vote from prying eyes for more years than I care to remember. But we can’t let nostalgia and tradition impede our national progress and it’s patently obvious that the polling station has lost its allure for too many voters.
Things will have to be changed if we really do want to get more people to exercise their political franchise and clearly it is time to upgrade our electoral technology, if necessary by dragging it kicking and screaming into the modern world.
But you can’t convince me that the best way forward is to replace our outdated polling booths with universal postal ballots.
Are the government really telling us that we haven’t got a better option than simply adopting the outdated technology of the 1840s? Surely the UK deserves a better solution for elections in the 21st century.
Isn't the UK government thoroughly ashamed that even so-called third-world countries, such as India, seem to be able to adopt new voting technology, apparently without batting an eyelid, while our own ambitions aim no further than a pilot scheme for postal voting in parts of the UK?
Presumably, if this summer’s postal pilot is deemed a success, the technology will, eventually, be rolled out to the rest of the country, possibly by the middle of the century, if we are lucky.
And yet I seem to recall that Tony Blair once had much, much higher ambitions for technology. in 2000 he sincerely promised us that the UK would become the best place in the world for e-commerce and that all government services would be online by 2005.
So what has happened to the online voting technology then, Mr Blair? Perhaps it got lost in the internal mail, or perhaps a dog ate it.
Nevertheless, it should not be beyond the combined wit of one of the world’s so-called leading economies to have devised by now a computerised voting system that is both secure and practical.
But, because there is still no real appetite in Westminster for electronic voting, all we have to look forward to for the foreseeable future is a postal voting system, totally dependent on a crumbling postal infrastructure that would not have been tolerated in previous centuries.
So why should we have to put up with it in 2004? Presumably the government will say that electronic voting is not yet secure enough, but that argument doesn’t hold much water when the trusted Royal Mail blithely manages to lose more than 14 million items a year. So should we really be entrusting our precious votes to them when their so-called service is more like a lottery?
Or perhaps that explains the real political agenda in preferring snail mail over e-mail for voting. Presumably lost votes are so much easier to deal with than those embarrassing hanging chads from voting machines because lost votes can be safely attributed to continuing apathy. What a shambles.
But I know what the Victorians would have done in similar circumstances; they would have set up a competition, with a substantial prize for the best solution to the electronic voting conundrum, which is why that period truly was the era of successful public and private partnerships, unlike the present era of total dogs’ breakfasts.
No wonder the National Audit Office is so busy these days when it comes to government technology programmes…
Colin Beveridge is an independent consultant and leading commentator on technology management issues. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This was first published in May 2004