Digital Democracy

ELection picThis article originally appeared in the March edition of our quarterly magazine. To get the full experience, you can read the issue online here, or subscribe to receive a physical copy here.

January 2015 saw the celebration of Democracy Day here in the UK, this year marking the 750th anniversary of the country’s first parliament, although it’s perhaps not an occasion up there with Christmas. The month also saw anti-austerity party Syriza win a majority in Greece’s parliament, on the promise of a renegotiation of public debt obligations that many believe are crippling the country’s economic recovery. It was quite the month for democracy, even if it passed many in the politically disengaged British public by.

The UK will be holding its own public vote in May, with some billing it the ‘lottery election’ because of the colourful range of parties that are in a real position to win seats this time. The Independent has narrowed the race down to just 100 key marginals, noting that Labour is likely to face fierce competition from the Scottish National Party, and the Lib Dems are in danger of dropping from a haul of 57 seats last time around to just 19 in 2015.

Just as the political race has been thrown a little more wide open, the digital world has come a long way since we voted back in 2010, and no doubt contributing to the loosening grip of the ‘big two’ parties. But, despite near-peak-smartphone penetration in the UK, policymakers are still yet to give the green light to online, or better yet, mobile voting.

Internet voting
In true, lumbering bureaucracy fashion, two different groups in parliament have been consulting simultaneously on proposals around a ‘digital democracy’. Speaker John Bercow’s Digital Democracy Commission has just produced its report, stating that internet voting could be online in time for the 2020 general election, while also noting that parliamentary language and procedures will need to be simplified by then if we have any hope that “everyone can understand what the House of Commons does”.

Cabinet Office minister Sam Gyimah says: “The fact electronic voting is incredibly rare across the globe I believe is testament to some of the problems delivering it.” But Anthony Walker, deputy CEO of Tech UK says: “We are confident the tools exist to address these challenges.”

It’s something that’s been a reality in Estonia for a decade, as in 2005 Estonia became the first country in the world to offer legally binding online votes in a national election. The numbers casting their vote in this way has risen from just under 10,000 people first time around, to a third of the population practising digital democracy in last year’s European elections.

Voter engagement
The UK’s Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has likewise just finished accepting submissions on voter engagement, covering proposals including automatic registration, online voting and votes at 16. The former should be of particular interest to those who want more tech solutions in powerful places, given that moves by the Government Digital Service, tasked with transforming the British state for the 21st century, has tried to streamline voter registration and knocked almost 1m off the register in the process.

The Labour Party published its Digital Government report in November last year, calling for a digital government infrastructure that’s accessible to all. It cited figures from BT estimating that getting internet access means an equivalent extra £1,064 every year for each new user. The study points out that while the less well off are less likely to be online, 80 per cent of government interactions are with the poorest 25 per cent of people.

A new model for digital democracy is shaping up in the form of DemocracyOS, a cross-platform, open-source tool for debating and voting that’s being developed by a group of young professionals in Argentina. Its creators explain it like this: “The internet has changed everything: the way we share and consume culture, how we engage in commerce, and how we communicate with others. But the internet has failed to change in one key area of our lives: politics. Democracy is in great need of a serious upgrade.”

Having already appeared as part of a TED talk, and been demoed in front of the World Economic Forum, the project is about to be crowdfunded (of course) via a Kickstarter campaign. The vision is that voters will be given the opportunity to express their preferences on any given issue, directly to their elected representative, with the hope this will increase engagement with politics, and accountability of decision-makers.

Elsewhere in the world, and post-financial crash, the Icelandic public was given the opportunity to take part in drafting a crowdsourced constitution. The 10-month process saw an elected 25-member Constitutional Advisory Council seek feedback through social media sites before drafting the new document. But the effort ultimately failed in the country’s legislature, despite huge public support. In Seattle, meanwhile, an online game was used to challenge residents to pick funding priorities in order to close a very real $31.7m gap in the city’s 2013 budget.

Big data
So if we arent going to have a digitally-enabled election in the UK this time around, how are the campaigns shaping up?

It’s Barack Obama’s 2012 election campaign that usually springs to mind when considering great digital election campaigning. Harper Reed was certainly an unusual suspect when he was appointed CTO for the campaign, heading into the Oval office with a beard and thick-rimmed glasses you’d be more likely to find in Shoreditch than in the Whitehouse. But the victory won here is among the greatest examples the world has ever seen of big data being made genuinely useful, and much credit is given to the tech tools deployed during the race.

Going into 2015, and despite bringing in ‘the wizard of Oz’, Australian electoral guru Lynton Crosby on a £500,000 deal to secure electoral victory, the Conservatives look to be running more of a bad data campaign. The Spectator reports that the party is running two ‘rickety’ databases simultaneously in the run up to the May vote, VoteSource and Merlin, but points out this isn’t a new issue, with one campaigner admitting they “called quite a lot of dead people” in 2013’s Eastleigh by-election.

In contrast, Labour Digital, a young team of Labour supporters working in tech who ‘want Labour to be number one in digital’ has been called the party’s “most powerful weapon”. They created last year’s NHS Baby campaign, a minimally-party-branded tool that created lots of socially shareable nostalgia – I was the 25,484,298th baby born on the NHS – while harvesting perhaps millions of email addresses in the process.

The cost-efficiency and democratic access that comes with digital campaigning has not gone unnoticed by the smaller parties. “Digital means a level playing field,” says Conservative defector Douglas Carswell. “Almost anything the big corporate parties do on massive central databases can now be done on a £600 laptop. With a good desktop publishing programme and an army of volunteers, you can compete on equal terms with the Westminster machines.” The ‘Reasons to Vote Green’ website, knocked up by a tech-savvy volunteer, has seen more than 42,000 Facebook shares.

How the UKs leading politicians and parties stack up on Twitter

Old news
In the past, the Sun was confident enough of its own power to influence the election debate that it printed the famed ‘It’s the Sun wot won it’ front page following the Conservative victory in 1992. But the most heated discussions around the election so far have been centred on the TV debate: will they, won’t they? If they do, who will appear? And perhaps it’s the chatter happening around these TV spots that will make the biggest difference this time round.

It’s still not quite clear whether Facebook ‘likes’ actually turn into votes – I know I follow UKIP on Twitter, but only so I know what they’re up to. But FremantleMedia’s Keith Hindle recently told the Guardian that the level of social engagement its TV shows drive is now more important to advertisers than TV ratings.

Twitter has taken this opportunity to start opening up and highlighting tools that could help political parties make an impact in target seats, including geo-targeting around individual postcodes. “This is potentially even more important in 2015 when the role of the smartphone will come to the fore as a way of connecting with voters,” Twitter says on its blog. “Mobile is in Twitter’s DNA: of Twitter’s 15m UK users, 80 per cent access the platform via their mobile device.”

But, unlike newspapers, digital doesn’t become tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers: the internet doesn’t forgive or forget. David Cameron was mocked early in 2014 for ‘paying people to like him’, in the form of a paid Facebook campaign. The party was also ripped to shreds on Buzzfeed for trying to delete from its website some of the promises made before the last election. “The Tories have attempted to wipe all of their pre-2010 speeches off the internet. So we’ve dug them out,” says the website’s political editor Jim Waterson. Many voter choice sites, like, have sprung up to cater for an audience that just wants to know now.

Unfortunately for the political parties, the world won’t wait for them. The challenges now facing political parties are the same as those being tackled by legacy brands: when people can make a one-click purchase on Amazon, why would they use a specialist shop’s site? And although none of the parties have so far fallen foul of membership data leaks or breaches, given that discs containing information from three of the UKs most sensitive inquiries around police misconduct just got lost in the post, let’s not put it past them.

Many modern citizens, some spurred into caring by the exponential growth of smaller parties such as the Green Party and UKIP; and some mobilised by events taking place in Greece and elsewhere, are now trying to make their decision ahead of the May vote and will be expecting an online experience comparable with Airbnb or Netflix. They will be disappointed.

But it’s not actually those digital-savvy consumers that are the people most likely to vote. Despite the cheeky antics and big conversations now made possible online, in the 2010 election, fewer than half (44 per cent) of 18 to 24 year olds cast a ballot, while that shot up to 76 per cent of over 65s. As well as focusing on policies that favour older people, this perhaps explains the reluctance from the major parties to move to online or mobile voting: if you make it easier, digital people might actually do democracy. And you wouldnt want that now, would you?