The Scottish and UK Governments start to explore digital voting

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Is it finally time for the pencil and paper version of a democratic vote to end in the UK? Electronic voting takes place regularly in India, the USA, Canada, Australia, and Belgium, with voters tapping out their choices on touchscreens in polling stations. But few nations - with the exception of Estonia - have gone completely online with their general elections.

The great attraction of online voting has been the hope that, in the age of smartphones and ubiquitous computing, voter participation will radically increase. Electoral democracy comes to where people are, in their everyday, interactive and networked lives. 

Both the UK and the Scottish governments have been exploring reforms in this area. Westminster's Speaker's Commission on Digital Democracy reported in 2015. And the youth-oriented advocacy group WebRoots Democracy has been assiduously creating a range of essential reports on various aspects of digital democracy - tackling inclusion, security, viral democracy and many other elements of the challenge. 

A few weeks ago, the Scottish Parliament's consultation paper on electoral reform came out - with an extensive section on electronic voting in all its forms (pp. 14-18). They're looking for input - visit here - but the interesting factor is whether online voting will overlap with Holyrood's enthusiasm for lowering the voting age to 16. Given the ideological polarisation in recent national elections and polls - the young voting left-of-centre, but in smaller numbers than the old voting right-of-centre - this isn't a trivial matter. Would online voting trigger a "youthquake" politically? 

The Conversation ran an interesting article around this topic from Toby James, who actually assessed an earlier wave of experimentation with digital democracy, conducted by the New Labour government in the early 2000s. Jones regarded the tests as flawed - all the options were offered to the same set of voters at once (telephone voting, SMS voting, digital TV voting and even supermarket voting), rather than one new technique per each area (so they could be better compared).

Thus the outcome Jones observed - that automatic sending of postal ballots to houses was the best guarantor of raised participation, across all ages - isn't quite as downbeat for digital enthusiasts as it sounds. Compared to the early 2000s, aren't our devices - and our behaviours - much more digital-centric than then? And the security issues that bedevil the question of digital voting are perhaps much more addressable in an era of mobile-banking apps - never mind the rise of blockchain technology, with its amazing powers of ownerless encryption, to secure the identity of the voter. 

This is all the form of democracy, not the content - still less the character and values of the human beings who come to click these icons. But it's encouraging to see steady reform from the wider system - as long as we don't mistake technology for genuine citizens' vitality.