Digital Politics

Democratic structures and modes of participation are a core interest for the Liberal Democrats. The party has pioneered many techniques for information exchange and public participation in the physical world that may now be adopted more widely as they are made easier by advances in IT. For example, there is now much talk of email newsletters and on-line consultation as being important advances made possible through new technology. Such methods are functionally equivalent to the Focus newsletters and consultation-rich philosophy that underpins the Liberal Democrat tradition of community politics. It could be argued that IT is now allowing others to catch up with what Liberal Democrats have been doing the hard way for years.

As well as being an electoral campaigning methodology, this form of highly participative politics is also a political end in itself. It is a major objective of Liberal Democrat policy to transform government and politics so that it has a greater degree of citizen participation and accountability. It can therefore be argued that new technology has the potential to make all of politics and government more “Liberal Democrat”, whichever party actually holds the reins of power.

The Liberal Democrat approach has generally been one of accepting the maxim that “knowledge is power”. This has led us to prioritise education as not just an economic enabler but also a political enabler. We wish to see informed citizens take more ownership of their own governance.

The key question we have to answer in terms of the information revolution is whether it is spreading knowledge, and therefore power, or just creating access to large quantities of information which may be interesting but lacks potency. The anarchic nature of the internet has genuinely shifted the power balance in that it has allowed the transmission of important information outside the control of traditional authorities. Good examples of this can be found in the famous Serbian radio station B-92’s internet broadcasts during the conflicts in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia and the use of the internet by liberation movements in many parts of the world.

The future shape of the Internet is hard to predict in terms of the extent to which it will fall under the control of governments and large corporations. Liberal Democrats should argue for it to continue to be a community space rather than a government or corporate space. We would use the UK’s voice in the international for a which define the rules and standards for the Internet to argue for the central role of community space within it.

As a party, Liberal Democrats already have a sound reputation for adopting new technology. The e-democracy space fits so well with Liberal Democrat political aims that we should go much further in adapting the party to work in this new political environment. We should regard the e in e-democracy as not just referring to “electronic” but also “evolving” democracy and work at all levels to encourage that evolution to a more open and participatory democratic model.

We should approach moves towards direct democracy cautiously. The priority should be to ensure that as well as increasing the quantity of contributions to the decision-making process, we need to increase their deliberative quality. This may lead to an enhanced role for elected representatives rather than removing the need for them. The representative working in an e-democracy context can work with more citizens more effectively if they have the skills and tools to back them up.

In respect of making voting available by electronic means, there are two areas of concern that require further investigation. The use of remote voting methods, whether postal ballots or remote electronic voting such as over the internet, raises issues about the potential for abuse because of the lack of supervision when the act of voting takes place. The use of electronic voting systems raises concerns about public confidence in the results if they do not understand the systems for verification and audit. E-voting systems may be shown to be “secure” in a technical sense but this does not necessarily mean that their use will command public confidence.

The current paper voting system offers little security in terms of checking the identity of voter but is very strong in offering a safe, supervised environment for votes to be cast secretly without undue influence or coercion. Remote electronic voting by contrast can be designed to offer a greater degree of security over the identity of the voter but do not permit any effective supervision of the circumstances in which the vote was cast.

Confidence in the results of elections depends on the knowledge that the participants can have the result audited if they suspect there has been any foul play. Those monitoring elections and participating in them can understand the audit process for paper ballots and so will generally accept the eventual result following a challenge and audit. It is far harder for most people to understand what is going on within an electronic system and therefore to feel confident in any audit that takes place if a result has been challenged.

There has been a lack of substance in the arguments for remote electronic voting to date. We fully accept that remote electronic voting will bring additional convenience but this has not been shown to make a significant increase to voter turnout in the pilots conducted so far. The real benefits of e-voting may come when it is linked to new ways of participating in politics online yet it has largely been treated as a discrete exercise separate from developments in participation.

We therefore recommend that no widespread implementation of remote electronic voting takes place before further work is done to answer these concerns. The current voting system does command a high degree of public confidence. The introduction of remote electronic voting is an option that we ought to be actively considering and studying by means of selective pilots but this must be on the basis of a genuine examination of the potential benefits, costs and risks.

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