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Exclusive: Minister ‘intrigued’ by prospect of online voting

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The government has not ruled out introducing online voting, according to constitutional reform minister John Penrose.

Mr Penrose told LGC that digital voting was an “intriguing” and “interesting” idea which the government was “keeping a really close eye on”. However, he expressed concerns about how secure the process would be.

Online voting could “create new opportunities for fraud”, said Mr Penrose but added it could also be “incredibly convenient” for voters.

“It’s intriguing, it’s interesting and we’re keeping a really close eye on the way the technology develops but we would also want to see really solid evidence in the future of it being robust and really hard to hack,” he said.

Mr Penrose’s comments followed a speech about electoral registration at the Policy Exchange in London, during which he revealed seven election registration officers across the country (see box below) would be pioneering new ideas aimed at getting even more people onto the electoral register.

The results of the pilots – which could include using council tax records, working with local colleges and universities, as well as organisations such as Citizens UK and Operation Black Vote – will be shared online for other local authorities to learn from, said Mr Penrose.

He told LGC there was a “huge flood of ideas” but added there were “more ideas than there is time and money” so they would have to be prioritised.

Dubbed an “online academy”, Mr Penrose said: “You will be able to see what was done, what it cost, and how they worked out what they had achieved, and if you are in another part of the country you can replicate that in your area, validate it for yourself and work out if that’s what works for you.

“Some [councils] will report on things that have worked really well, and some will report on things that have not worked so well.”

Earlier this month, LGC reported how chief executives had called for the electoral system to be reformed amid concern that the existing paper-based system is inefficient, deters younger voters and is vulnerable to fraud.

At the time Doncaster MBC’s chief executive Jo Miller, who is deputy spokeswoman on elections for the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, suggested elections could be run by regional or sub-regional partnerships. She also said the election by thirds system, under which many councils hold polls each year, was unnecessarily costly.

Mr Penrose told LGC the government would not scrap the election-by-thirds system centrally as it was for each council to decide what electoral cycle it wanted. He also thought local authorities were still best placed to oversee election processes.

“Councils are the organisations where all this expertise resides, not just about how to run elections but they are the ones that understand their particular local demography the best,” said Mr Penrose. “It’s something that has stood the test of time and they are the ones coming up with the ideas [of how to improve the system] so it would be rather obtuse to ignore them now.”

The pioneering electoral registration officers

  • Sir Howard Bernstein, chief executive at Manchester City Council
  • David Buckle, chief executive at South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse DCs
  • Robert Connelly, head of electoral services at Birmingham City Council
  • Theresa Grant, chief executive of Trafford MBC
  • Paul Lankester, chief executive at Stratford-on-Avon DC
  • Rob Leak, chief executive of Enfield LBC
  • Barry Quirk, in his dual capacity as Lewisham LBC chief executive and chair of the London Elections Board
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