From the TUC

Never mind the ballots. Daily Mail fail over Government #TUbill eVoting leak

09 Feb 2016, by in Politics

Several papers have picked up on yesterday’s leaked ministerial letter, outlining concessions the Government think they may have to make to head off a trade union bill defeat in the Lords.

The Daily Mail have joined the pack, though they have as you might expect a slightly different take from the Guardian and the Daily Mirror. The Mail worry that in conceding a review into online voting in strike ballots the government might be about to hand over the UK’s industrial relations to the members of Anonymous:

“Now union members may vote to strike using email or text message despite fears that hackers will be able to rig results”

Getting the most obvious response out of the way here… No they won’t. Voting by “email or text message” isn’t actually on the table here, any more than plans to get people to tweet their votes in before announcing #alloutbrothers, or conveniently losing any ‘no’ votes on Snapchat.

Unions have to use a government approved balloting company to conduct the ballot (important as it ensures independence from both the union and the employer). Thanks to legislation from the government’s predecessors in 1992, unions can currently only use postal ballots.

The same suppliers who offer postal balloting to unions would also offer an online path for voting – indeed they have already done so for more than a decade. In addition to the Conservatives and other parties, groups using this without mishap recently have included company shareholders, membership organisations, universities, building societies and many more.

Yes, there are potential weak points in an online system, but a lot of them are shared with postal voting, as they run off the same systems.

In cautioning against all this newfangled digital technology, MailOnline reports that:

“ministers have been alarmed by the lack of security surrounding e-voting systems.”

So alarmed in fact that the Conservative party used e-voting to elect their own London Mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith last year (curiously the Mail missed the untrustworthiness of Zac’s ballot out of their own reporting – maybe they’ll correct it?). Apparently the choice of who might get to govern our capital city for four years is less of a critical decision that hackers with an agenda might be keen to influence than whether a group of workers takes a day’s strike action.

“They fear that hackers could manipulate the result of strike ballots, or release the names of workers voting against industrial action, increasing the threat of intimidation and reprisals by striking workers.”

The fig leaf the Government have been using to justify their ‘security concerns’ has been an opinion from the Open Rights Group, given last year when the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy recommended introducing online voting for general elections. It’s nice to see the government taking such an interest in the work of civil liberties groups – but we wonder how deep the concerns go if they couldn’t seem to remember their name whenever they cited them (Nick Boles calling Director Jim Killock “Tom Killick” in bill committee, and the group “Open Data Group” at third reading).

We disagree with ORG in this on any case, but it’s also slightly disingenuous for ministers to invoke them here, given their opposition in this case was to using online voting in a general election, as against what they perceive as the gold standard security of observed ballot boxes and count. ORG don’t like postal voting either (viewing it as a “black box system” that diminishes public trust in the same way as online voting), but ministers weren’t quite so keen on pointing that out in the union context. Possibly because the most obvious response would be to allow independently supervised workplace ballot boxes in strike votes (which we’d like too please).

If the Mail are still worried, we can recommend a leaf through a report published last month by campaign group Webroots Democracy. “Secure Voting” rounds up explanations on the security of digital voting methods from suppliers, tech companies and academics. There’s a lot in the report to show security issues aren’t exactly being decided on a whim, such as interesting proposals to actually reduce the likelihood of intimidation from employer or union, by allowing a vote to be recast online, with only the latest one counting.

People are well used to doing important things securely online these days. Whilst not so many of us do our shopping in bitcoins just yet, most of us do happily maintain an online bank account, apply for a passport, insure a house, or pay road tax online. Less and less is being done by post, and most people expect that this is only going to continue. That much was obvious from the results of a recent YouGov poll we commissioned. It found 53% of the public supported online strike ballots, whilst only 20% opposed. We wonder if all Daily Mail readers are part of the 20%.

At a time when the government are seeking to impose thresholds to make it harder to pass a strike vote, not allowing online voting (and supervised workplace voting) can only look like what it is – an opportunistic and cynical attempt to put procedural hurdles in the way of any group of workers trying to exercise their democratic right to strike.

We also need the Government not just to concede a “review” into online voting, which the leaked letter suggests might not need an end date, conveniently kicking the issue into the long grass. We need proper action now as part of the trade union bill to allow as many union members as possible to engage in important democratic choices about their work and their rights.

ACTION: If you oppose the trade union bill, please sign our petition now