On the merits of paper-based democracy

The last-minute crash of GOV.UK online voter registration caused uproar this week. This was not just any service outage: the EU referendum outcome could be decided by turnout levels amongst younger voters, who have a propensity both to favour both online registration and Remain. Cabinet Office and the Electoral Commission had not planned for the eventuality of a crash. Hence an immediate clamour to temporarily extend the voting deadline, which was granted – to dark threats of a legal challenge by Brexiteers.

The outage was caused by technical decisions made several years back, though. The GDS-designed online voter registration apparently wasn’t architected for elasticity, which seems extraordinary for a deadline-driven service naturally lending itself to demand spikes. The digital tax disc service suffered a similar fate at launch in October 2014. Those currently working on new digital services should take the opportunity  to save themselves future embarrassment by asking searching questions of their architects.

The wider point is this, however: decisions made by digital service designers may now affect democratic outcomes. A wholly unacceptable state of affairs, both for citizens and designers. Yet the gung-ho culture fostered by GDS in its early days won’t have helped. Its refusal to engage with teams seen as ‘legacy’ meant that insights into existing processes and systems got lost, across a number of departmental domains.

Digital is usually seen as a boon for democracy, fostering broader and deeper citizen engagement with government. Yet this week’s events warn of its limits. Digital may create new ways to disenfranchise, even if this was not the intended outcome. The introduction of online voter registration in the first place was blamed for the disappearance of 800,000 people from the electoral register. There have even been complaints that Vote Leave’s website was directing would-be online registrants to their own mailing list. All possible grounds for legal challenges to a close referendum result.

To avoid chaos and constitutional crises, the systems and rules guaranteeing democracy must be transparent and agreed up front. The UK’s largely paper-based democracy is the result of hundreds of years of iteration, and offers the advantage that its workings are pretty visible to untrained observers.  For this reason, it’s just as well that digital government is taking its time to arrive. 

Postscript: A committee of MPs later said that a foreign cyber-attack could not be ruled out – a yet more sinister perspective on the same problem.

Polling Station
Credit: Rain Ashford CC BY-NC 2.0

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