Government opposition to online balloting for unions is based on a misunderstanding
At the trade union bill’s second reading, BIS minister Nick Boles outlined his problems with online voting:
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) raised the question of e-balloting, and he is right that there is no in-principle objection to the idea of voting online. The objection is practical. In January 2015, the Open Rights Group—I think that it believes in open rights—gave evidence to your Commission on Digital Democracy, Mr Speaker, in which it said: “Voting is a uniquely difficult question for computer science: the system must verify your eligibility to vote; know whether you have already voted; and allow for audits and recounts. Yet it must always preserve your anonymity and privacy. Currently, there are no practical solutions to this highly complex problem and existing systems are unacceptably flawed”. If the Opposition can find a practical solution, I look forward to hearing it.
Sounds pretty conclusive, right? But the problem is, Mr Boles is taking the Open Rights Group’s concerns out of context.
Many expert commentators do indeed have concerns about online balloting. But the concerns are that online balloting is less secure and transparent than the method currently used in general elections – a network of polling stations and a central count, all independently supervised.
However, of course, unions don’t use networks of polling stations. They use postal voting – indeed, the 1992 Trade Union and Labour Relations Act says that this is the only acceptable method of voting for unions.
And postal voting is hardly a gold standard. There’s a disconnect between putting your vote in a postbox and it being counted at another location. People lose track of their ballot paper amongst the junk mail, forget to update their address when they move or just never get around to returning them in time. Sometimes the get lost in the post. And all-postal ballots are expensive.
If we’re comparing electronic voting to postal voting, there is little difference in terms of security. So we can ignore Mr Boles’ red herring.
Of course, if the government are really serious about guaranteeing the security of ballots, why are they also ruling out allowing unions to move to the gold standard of polling stations and ballot boxes in the workplace? Workplace balloting would be invigilated by an independent and government licensed scrutineer. It would be conducted with full respect to privacy and security, and it would make participation as easy as possible for workers. We’d like that too please Mr Boles.
If as Nick Boles says, the government has no objection in principle, and its practical objections are based on a misreading of the situation, what obstacles are there left to unions joining the many other groups currently able to use online balloting, such as businesses, membership and professional organisations and the Conservative Party?
As it stands, they’d rather achieve their aim of improving turnout and accountability in union elections by simply imposing arbitrary thresholds. That’s hardly a practical solution of the type Boles seems so keen on.