General Election 2015: E-voting, PR and other ways to shake up future elections

I know all the objections to such ideas, but the health of our democracy is too important for changes not to be made

Mary Dejevsky
Thursday 23 April 2015 18:19 BST
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(Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

For the past five years, our hidebound and risk-averse United Kingdom has been engaged in something of a constitutional experiment. A twofold experiment, in fact. The first part followed David Cameron’s surprise decision to offer the Liberal Democrats a share of power and Nick Clegg’s decision to accept. The second part resulted from Alex Salmond’s determination to hold a referendum on independence for Scotland, and Cameron’s acquiescence.

The consequence of the first decision has been the first peacetime coalition government of modern times. It was put together in a fraction of the time it takes most of our continental neighbours to form their coalitions, and – despite the foreboding of many – it proved not only stable, but in many ways more reformist than many of the majority governments that preceded it.

As for the Scottish referendum, the whole process offered more than a glimpse of how politics could be done differently. The extent of public engagement left the rest of the UK lost somewhere between amazement and envy. There was a turnout of more than 80 per cent; votes for 16-year-olds; packed public meetings; competing posters all over high streets and farmers’ fields; and fierce debates around family dinner tables. How different from the current hyper-sanitised, hyper-managed campaign.

These two experiences have demonstrated that dear old risk-averse UK is capable of accepting change, even when it affects our cherished constitutional arrangements. But now is no time to rest on our laurels. Success should embolden the next government to do more – whatever its complexion.

Out on the stump in recent weeks with candidates in safe and marginal constituencies, I have come away with the impression that, for almost the first time in my memory, there is an appetite for the electoral system to change. After the election, that appetite could be whetted further. The success of electronic registration – at a rather late stage, admittedly – should encourage the next Parliament to introduce e-voting.

I know all the objections – from security to practicality, to the risk of discouraging the elderly and poor. I also know, having covered the notorious “tied” US election of 2000, that mechanising the process can have disadvantages. But American voting machines and e-voting are quite different things. In the US, the antiquated machines actually make the process slower than pencil and paper, and – fatally – as we saw with the absurdity of the “hanging chads”, there is no reliable way to conduct a re-count.

E-voting not only avoids those flaws, but it works. If India and Estonia – two countries that could hardly be more different in terms of size and development – can do it without either catastrophic breakdown or charges of mass fraud, then so can we. Whether it would increase turnout is another matter, but it would allow the abolition of postal voting and prevent intimidation at the polling station – both of which have compromised the integrity of some votes in recent years. I am as fond as anyone of those little brown pencils on a string, but the time has surely come to say goodbye.

A second reform has to be the introduction of some form of proportional representation. There are those who will object that the Liberal Democrats had their chance – the 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote system, which they comprehensively lost. But there were reasons for this, including voter-fatigue and the fact that the supposedly impossible – a coalition government – had suddenly become possible under first-past-the-post.

It could well be, however, that after this election the Lib Dems find they have company in the PR lobby. What might be the response of, say, Green or Ukip or even Scottish Labour voters, when they wake up on 8 May to discover that the seats won by their parties bear no relation to the votes cast. With all the party leaders campaigning nationally on an almost American presidential scale, there has to be recognition that support for minority parties has reached the point where they need to be represented in Parliament – either that, or part of the electorate is effectively disenfranchised.

A third electoral change has to do with funding – not necessarily of parties, but of candidates. Several would-be MPs told me, as they traipsed heroically around their constituencies, that they could not imagine how anyone with a nine-to-five job could do what they were doing. They insisted that this, rather than any deliberate bias in the selection process towards “professional” politicians, explained why so many of today’s ministers and MPs have never held a job outside politics and risked not just seeming, but being, out of touch.

Nor is it just the time. To “nurse” a constituency while not an MP is expensive if you live or work elsewhere, plus there are administrative costs before the campaign proper – and state funding – kicks in. One person estimated she had spent more than £40,000 of her own money. That leaves politics mostly to the professionals and/or the (much) better off. No wonder old-fashioned working-class MPs will soon be a thing of the past. Funding for non-incumbents will be hard to arrange, and could be abused. But if we want a wider range of people in Parliament, a way has to be found. Open primaries could help, too. But without funding for nominated candidates, the circle of those putting themselves forward will remain small.

And finally a change not to adopt. It has emerged that the Conservatives may mobilise an army of US volunteers to “get the vote out” on the day. I cannot imagine anything more likely to keep the average British voter resolutely at home. By all means invite American students to observe and even help with our election. Such exchanges broaden minds. But keep them chained to their desks as voting looms. Super-keen young Americans chivvying the Tory vote could hand Labour every marginal in the land – and vice-versa.

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