Since Scotland narrowly voted to remain part of the UK, people are thinking about constitutional reform. Who should have powers over what, what democratic accountability there should be, and how we should confer a mandate on our politicians. One thing that’s been mentioned repeatedly is online voting. It’s an immediately appealing idea, but I believe a little thought reveals many problems. There are three main considerations:
Verifiable, Anonymous, Online – Pick Two
The system we have where a ballot paper is issued to a voter who fills it in in secret is pretty good at being secure and anonymous. Yes, there are index numbers on the ballot papers which allow them to be linked back to the individual voter, but this is handled by a different set of people to the people who handle the ballot papers, and so it’s a lot of effort to do it, particularly in secret – it’s only really used in cases of suspected voter fraud, under police supervision.
The obvious problem with any system where the ballot paper is filled in where somebody can see it, such as on your home computer or mobile phone, is it means the ballot is not anonymous to any onlooker. This creates the opportunity for people to be coerced into voting a particular way.
However, this pales into significance compared to verifiability; the average home PC is a mess of viruses and other malware. Most of the time you don’t notice it, because it’s designed not to be noticed, but your computer might be taking part in an attack without your knowledge, using its Internet connection along with thousands of others to flood websites or its CPU to crack passwords. Computers are, to non-experts, mystical black boxes. The user has no real way of knowing whether voting software is doing what they ask, or that their computer is allowing them to interact with it sensibly. They don’t know if the vote record they see on their screen is the same one that’s been communicated to the vote-counting system.
Only computer experts can audit all the software being used, including everything that runs on a typical PC (like malware) which could interfere with the process or appearance of voting. Even then, it is impossible even for experts to be sure that software being run at the time of the vote is identical to the software they’ve audited. Even if it were possible, it means that then the average voter has to trust third party experts who may have their own agenda in important elections, to assert the security and verifiability of their vote.
The polling station system we have is flawed; for example, personation is fairly simple and hard to detect while turnout is low. There are possible solutions to that but they all require further bureaucracy and different opportunities for things to go wrong or be manipulated. But there are a lot of safeguards and double-checks in the system, even if they’re not always used. A candidate can place observers at polling stations, and seal ballot boxes between the polling station and count room to ensure they’re not tampered with. And in extremis, it is possible to correlate ballot papers back to individual voters, by using two different sets of data held by two different groups of people; this is near-impossible to do in secret, even if you’re electoral staff, and when it does occur in the event of fraud, it’s done under police supervision. The entire system can be explained to a lay person and doesn’t require any secret “black boxes” whose function isn’t easily observed. No online system can say the same.
Of course, we are prepared to make trade-offs between convenience and security – postal votes are a good example of this. Postal votes are not anonymous, because somebody can watch you fill in your vote; they’re not particularly reliable because there’s even fewer checks on whether the person submitting the vote is the person to whom it was issued. From the legitimate voter’s perspective the postal system is a black box of sorts – I know voters who swear blind they’ve returned a ballot by post but haven’t shown up on the “marked register” of people who voted. The introduction of widely-available postal voting increased turnout, but also became the biggest source of fraud allegations. However, the potential for fraud with postal votes is limited by physical access – to the address to which the ballot papers are delivered if you’ve registered nonexistent people, or to the individual voters you wish to intimidate. For online voting, elections can be swung by a single person on a different continent with a well-crafted computer virus; the risk is far greater in scope.
Why Use Online Voting At All?
There is no doubt that online voting is convenient. With Internet access almost ubiquitous, it can cut costs and time and hassle. So when would we want to use it? Firstly, when the electorate is engaged. As mentioned above, fraud is easier to detect when turnout is higher (including several attempts in the unusually busy Scottish Independence Referendum). Secondly, when the risk of being caught is worth more to the people providing your black box, than the opportunity to influence your election.
The obvious answer then is for internal elections. Sorry to burst peoples’ bubbles, but the chance of influencing who gets to be comms officer for an AO isn’t worth the risk for a reputable vote-managing organisation to take. Turnout is likely to be a higher percentage of a much smaller number, with a more committed electorate, which will make that fraud harder to hide. For the Lib Dems, it would make sense for OMOV in Federal elections, particularly if there’s an offline top-up for the people who don’t / can’t use the Internet.
Online voting is an interesting technology, and you have to understand the risks and advantages. Having laid them out, I’m clear that online voting for national elections and referendums is a bad idea; they tried it in Estonia and the system has been found insecure (unlike that article, I do not believe that online voting can be made secure). Even electronic ballot counting can be fraught with errors; it might be impossible to say who actually won the London Mayoral Election in 2008.
The main advantage, other than cost, is that of increased voter turnout. However, this is not necessarily a good end in itself; that’s a separate blog post which would either be very long, or just instruct you to read Gordon Lishmann and Bernard Greaves’ “Theory and Practice of Community Politics” (available in an updated edition from ALDC). Using online technology to help people be more aware of politics and what their politicians can do is worthy; devolving power and improving the voting system so voting is meaningful will also increase turnout. But we should not see increased turnout as an end in itself; that way lies the foolish thoughts of mandatory voting, or the risks of insecure online voting.
Liberal Democrat Autumn Federal Conference begins this weekend in Glasgow, and runs through until Wednesday. Other people will have opinions about the policy motions on the agenda, the challenges facing the Leadership, even the Presidential and Federal elections which are ongoing. But this is an activist’s blog, for activist people, so that’s where I’m going to concentrate (apart from plugging one campaign).
The biggest problem we face as activists right now is fear and self-doubt. We think that people will hate us on the doorstep (pro-tip: generally they don’t). We’re not sure we can live with the compromises we’ve made in Government – letting the Tories do some stuff we don’t like, so we can get some stuff they don’t like through. We can’t quite be bothered to do that Focus round tonight… maybe tomorrow. And maybe we’ll canvass next week instead of this week. The weather might be better, after all.
The negative narrative has been pounding on us for nearly five years now, and it’s harder to maintain our energy and build critical masses. While we’ve always believed in theory in pluralism and pragmatism and the art of the possible, it’s hard to avoid worrying about what the party as a whole could have done differently or better, and how things might have turned out otherwise. Even those of us who wholeheartedly believe that going into the Coalition was the right thing to do for the country, that we knew it would make us unpopular but at the time felt it was worth it, even those people get disheartened at the way that our political opponents just spam our Facebook page with TUITION FEES YELLOW TORIES over and over again.
If you’re at Conference, this is the biggest critical mass of Lib Dems you’ll see until after the General Election. Many of them, like you, are disheartened, are burned out, are fed up. You can sit over a coffee with them and complain at each other and you will come away from Conference more disheartened than when you went. But there are also people there who are energetically fighting the good fight, and you can benefit from that energy. There are people making impassioned conference speeches because they strongly believe that it’s important to make good political policy democratically. There are people giving up their time to teach you new skills in the training sessions, or to get involved in discussions in fringe meetings. Listen to some of those speeches, go to some of those fringes and training, and be inspired. Buy a table flag for a local Lib Dem social event. Go back to your constituencies and share that inspiration – tell your members what you did, how you voted and why, discuss what you learned and saw, who you met, what friendships you made.
Let’s get together, inspire each other, work hard, party hard, and go back to our constituencies and prepare to hold our head up high and fight the good Liberal fight, win or lose!
This originally took the form of a post on my Facebook wall, and received a lot of positive feedback so I thought I’d share it here. I read this article on “digital detox” recently. Some of it’s a bit hippy-dippy for me, but the general theme of managing variable intermittent reinforcement rings true. Political activism is a perfect example – sometimes you try something in politics and get a positive result, whether it’s winning an election, signing up a new member, getting a policy motion accepted etc. Often you don’t, but the rush is palpable. And there is always more to do, until we have every ward and constituency in the country a safe Lib Dem seat. There’s a phrase that “Activism expands to fill more than the time available”, which is why it’s important to get your priorities right.
Over the last year or so I’ve adopted a number of tools and habits which have made me more relaxed, more productive and feeling much better. Some of it’s about removing distractions. I used to be involved in a lot of geek chatrooms, which have the same intermittent reinforcement – somebody would come along and ask a question, and you’d answer it and they’d be happy and you’d feel good about helping a stranger. I’m now only in two chatrooms with any regular conversation, neither of which is hugely busy, and both of which are largely social chat with people I know personally.
I’m using Workrave, designed as an anti-RSI tool, to prompt me to take occasional short breaks and infrequent longer ones. I’ve turned off push notifications on my email client, and told it to check for new mail every 30 minutes so I’m not frequently distracted by incoming mail. I have made sure I have a decent chair and table to sit at, meaning I can work for longer stretches without getting uncomfortable or giving myself back ache. Occasionally I turn off wifi on my laptop to concentrate on typing up minutes or writing blog posts; I make a note of anything I need to research and come back to it after I’ve finished the draft rather than scampering off in search of data and getting distracted. As a result I’ve been writing more and better. Using Dropbox and ownCloud means I can benefit from remote backup and sharing but still have files available when I’m offline.
Most importantly, I’ve used the parental control feature of my ADSL router to cut off the Internet from my laptop at midnight; this stops those late-night Wikipedia / TVTropes binges, and encourages me to go to bed even if I’m not yet completely exhausted; lying in bed reading a book is more restful, and grants me better sleep, than sitting online until I feel tired. I’ve actually noticed that I wake up after less sleep, feeling better, by going to bed before I’m exhausted, and I’m squeezing an extra hour out of every day as a result. I’m doing better at looking after myself as a result – I’m eating better and not often forgetting meals or being too busy to eat, which keeps my brain fuelled and able to concentrate.
I’ve been making heavy use of my back garden over the last few months; sitting outside in the fresh air, listening to the noises of the neighbourhood and the feel of the breeze has been great for me, and there are two green spaces (one well-tended park, one more overgrown reserve) very close to me that I can walk around and enjoy, or sit reading a book within. I’m getting more actual reading done, more time to sit in thought or actively meditate, and I’m doing more home cooking which I find grounding.
The self-reinforcement of variable interruptions is starting to wear off; I’m finding it easier to put down non-urgent tasks when I need to rest, and also easier to complete tasks before they become urgent and stressful. I don’t currently have a smartphone so I don’t have the temptation to constantly check email and social media on one, but when I do get a new one (hopefully before Conference) I will need to work out a way to manage distractions through that as well.
In terms of my activism, I’m also doing things that make life a bit easier for other people – after last night’s local party exec meeting, I gave three other people lifts home, to save them slogging on the buses. It’s a simple thing, doesn’t take much time for me, and helps them stay positive.
It seems obvious in Lib Dem circles that in the run-up to the next General Election we’re going to have to significantly concentrate our strength in our held seats, and the small smattering of (mostly Tory) constituencies where it looks like we can take them from our opponents. This is the subject of a recent op-ed by Stephen Tall on Lib Dem Voice, referencing a Guardian article.
It’s also a continuation of what’s been referred to as the “Rennard Doctrine”, a strategy which emphasises concentrating resources on where we can win adopted by Chris Rennard as Chief Executive, which saw the Lib Dems’ share of the seats won in General Elections more closely matching our share of the popular vote. A 20% discrepancy came down to around 10% – still a long way short thanks to the vagaries of “First Past The Post” plurality voting, but enough to make the party a more effective Parliamentary force.
The problem, as discussed in Stephen’s article, is that by concentrating resources on the places we can win, the places we can’t win get weaker and weaker. This was the story of Cleggmania in 2010; the biggest rise in membership in 20 years, most of whom joined in places where there was no Lib Dem presence, and hence nothing to engage or retain them. Yes, the fall in 2011 was even bigger than the Cleggmania rise, but the disheartening feeling of joining and getting nothing out of the party can’t have helped. (You can see more on Lib Dem membership figures over here.)
The alternative to purely concentrating our strength where we think we can win, is what’s termed in the US as a 50 State Strategy. It was popularised by Howard Dean as chair of the DNC (and indeed he came to Liberal Democrat conference in 2009 to tell us about it). This attempts to mobilise Democrat supporters wherever they are in the country, even deep in Republican territory – introducing them to each other, encouraging street-scale campaigning, standing for election… generally low-level grassroots activity which can build up over time. This doesn’t make much short-term sense; even the vote for President isn’t a direct popular vote, but filtered through the electoral college which is pluralistic in almost every state. However, in the longer term it can pay dividends; starting to flex campaigning muscles in Republican turf in 2005 may well have led to Obama winning Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina in 2008, since the party was more able to capitalise on Obama’s national media profile. The comparison to Cleggmania should be obvious.
We fought this year’s Euro elections on the idea that our areas of strength would give us enough votes to win seats in a PR system. Generally, our vote held up in those places thanks to our campaigning, but our vote elsewhere collapsed horribly, and we lost almost all our MEPs. We will need to build our strength nationwide before the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in 2016, and the European Parliament elections in 2019. But what of the General Election in 2015?
To borrow a phrase from bi activism, we can embrace the power of “and”. While it’s clear that the majority of our resources must be dedicated to campaigning until polling day, I think there’s room to look to expand, using the General Election as a driver. While we can’t run a full 650 Constituency Strategy, we can look a little wider than the boundaries of our target constituencies. Most of our held seats are non-adjacent, so we should be reaching out to bring members, supporters and activists into the campaigns.
As a Lib Dem in a constituency adjacent to one of our held seats, this is what I’ve been doing. I do a lot of work on member engagement and retention, trying to make sure my members are supporting campaigning and fundraising events in our held seat. I’ve organised simple social events to draw in people from across the area and get people talking and enthused, and their reach is spreading to other nearby “black holes”. Through all this the drive is to get people worked up, more keen to play a part in their local area, but mostly to come and help in our targets.
In the longer term, we have two options – keep rolling out from the centres of strength, which is a slow-but-steady grassroots approach, or try to identify potential hotspots where we might be able to start up activity more or less from scratch. I think that regional parties have a strong part to play in the latter. (One thing I like about CiviCRM as a membership management tool is that it allows you to map members, supporters and activists by postcode, giving you a good “feel” for where you might have a nexus of support.) But this will require strong regional parties who are committed to rebuilding in black holes, and I’m not sure how many of those the party has.
Liberal Democrat Voice is an independent website run by volunteers which accepts article contributions and allows discussion on a wide variety of Lib Dem-related topics. I don’t read every article there in depth, but it’s basically essential reading for Lib Dems, even if you just skim the headlines to get a sense of what’s new.
Unfortunately like most news websites these days, the comment section has become a regular shouting match for derailment and disruption rather than discussion on the topics at hand. There are two particular categories that irk me; one is Mens’ Rights Activists who try to derail any post on equalities with their “but what about the white cis straight mens!” nonsense. The other is the anti-Clegg faction who will spam every post on the site with calls for Nick to resign. In my opinion these people are getting in the way of debate, not contributing to it.
I have finally got sufficiently fed up with this to do something about it, and written something which will filter out particular users’ comments from LDV posts. This should make LDV more useful and less rage-inducing. By filtering out the predictable comments from the predictable people, I should be able to get more out of the LDV comment section. It’ll reduce my temptation to feed the trolls and post things that make me look bad, like the comment in the screenshot. If others use it, it’ll hopefully increase the signal:noise ratio further.
There’s a plugin for Firefox and Iceweasel called Greasemonkey which allows the user to install small programs to edit webpages after they’ve loaded. There are equivalents for Chrome, IE, Safari and other browsers as per the Wikipedia link provided. I have started work on a simple killfile for some of the LDV commenters I find particularly disruptive, which you can download here. Once you’ve got Greasemonkey installed, that link should load my script and start running it on Lib Dem Voice pages. It’s only a first draft at the moment, and I expect future improvements if I can be bothered, but your Greasemonkey should pick them up when I do.
And to make the obvious liberal point: Freedom of speech does not equate to freedom to be heard. These posters are not violating LDV’s comment policy, but I do not want to, and do not have to, read what they have to say.