ON 3 MAY, UK voters will be out in force to choose their preferred councillors and mayors in the local elections. The London mayoral election has dominated the headlines so far, giving Ken and Boris a chance to show off their mature sides with plenty of mud-slinging in their haste to win votes.
As a Londoner, I'll be getting my opportunity to vote for the next mayor, but this time around I will be out of the country on election day. Realising this, I was filled with dread at how complicated it would prove to be to ensure that my vote will be counted.
As we're in the digital age, with the government so keen to tell us how connected and web-savvy the entire nation is, I naively hoped that casting my vote would be a simple process involving registering online and then voting over the web. But no.
First of all, I had to sit in a phone queue to be directed to the web site to visit to register to vote by post. Next step was to fill in the postal voting request form. This can be filled out electronically, but can't be submitted via the web site, it needs to be printed out and sent through the post. This has to be done 11 working days before the election, so I sent my form off with no time to spare.
Next up, I'm due to receive my ballot paper in the post, the catch here being that these only get sent out any time up to four days before the election date, by which time I might already be out of the country. If by luck the ballot paper reaches me in time, I need to send it back via the freepost envelope included - adding to my suspicions that this whole setup is a scam to extract more money for the Royal Mail in wasted stamps, with all the forms and papers being sent back and forth.
Or if it's too late to send back my vote by post, I'm advised that I can hand in the ballot slip at a polling station on election day, surely defeating the purpose of setting up this complicated post voting system if I'm around to vote in person.
Almost a decade ago, I wrote about e-voting trials used for the 2003 local elections. In Swindon, almost 7,000 people voted via the web remotely back then; in addition 339 people voted via interactive digital TV, and 163 used a public internet kiosk. In Stroud, 20 per cent of the total votes were cast electronically, while in St Albans, 10,000 people voted online.
So why is it that almost 10 years on, online voting has all but disappeared? One goal of elections is to get as many people as possible voting to get the fairest and most representative result.
As a nation, we're overloaded with smartphones, tablets, connected TVs and work and home PCs. Technology is advanced enough now that we trust our phones to make payments for us, and we can log on to our banking web sites relying on the safety of a security token. And both postal and traditional paper voting systems have been shown to have their flaws - think of the Florida recount in the US presidential election of 2000.
Added to all of the above is the fact that online voting has a good chance of increasing turnout at elections. According to a Virgin Media study from April 2010, the number of people in favour of online voting jumped from 19 to 43 per cent from the previous parliamentary election.
Allowing people to vote online, ideally via the device of their choice, would no doubt prove popular, and would allow the government to reach the groups normally absent from the polling stations, such as the younger generation. Certainly it's hard to imagine many 18-year olds putting up with the hassle of queueing to vote or registering to vote by post, when they could be updating their Facebook status for the fiftieth time that morning.
Clearly widespread online voting would require substantial investments in secure anti-fraud voting systems. But the year of the London Olympics should be an ideal time to seize the initiative, since IT giants such as Cisco, BT and Atos are working together along with the government to ensure that the nation's technology infrastructure is in place to support the games. With support from firms like these along with the huge amounts of data the government is already storing on us, why not extend this investment to build an online electronic voting system for future elections?
Certainly the promise of online voting at the next election would get my vote this time around. µ