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banner Monday, 29 April, 2002, 14:48 GMT 15:48 UK
Can a text message save democracy?
Grab from e-vote Sheffield website
New ways to vote in Sheffield
test hello test
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online
Are innovative voting methods the way to reverse the decline in the number of people casting a ballot - or just a gimmick that will further trivialise politics?
It's nearing polling day in the local elections in England. Instead of hot-footing it down to the polling booth - or perhaps forgetting it altogether - you pull out your mobile and voting card and cast a text message ballot.

Engaging the voters
More people voted for the Pop Idol finalists than for the Lib-Dems in the 2001 general election
That's exactly what voters in certain wards in Liverpool and Sheffield can do in this year's local elections. They will also be able to vote over the phone and online.

Elsewhere, alternative methods of voting are being road-tested, from postal-only votes in Hackney to electronic kiosks in St Albans and Stratford-upon-Avon.

The aim is get more people to have their say, there having been some evidence that it's less apathy than inconvenience that keeps voters away.

Counting fallen chads in the US presidential election
Voters lose confidence in polling methods that fail
Turn-out dropped to less than 60% in last year's general election; and voters in local elections have long been the few, not the many.

The plan is to get online voting in place for the 2006 General Election. Yet if it turns out to be open to abuse - or suffer some large-scale technical glitch - voters will be suspicious of using alternative methods to cast their ballots.

And there are concerns that e-voting will undermine the democratic process, making people think it is no more important than picking their favourite Pop Idol.

Apathy in the UK

Stephen Coleman, director of the Hansard Society's e-democracy programme and chair of a government commission looking into net voting, says there is no reason why an easy vote is any less valid.

The day before polling day is May Day, when anti-globalisation protesters hit the streets
Too bored to vote on 2 May, but not to fight capitalism the day before?
After all, the logic behind that argument means that to spark interest in politics, we should make voting more difficult.

"The idea that you can't be a good democrat without trudging down to the polling booth in driving rain is a fallacy. Someone sitting in front of their computer having a good think is just as serious. It's the thought that goes into it that counts."

International experience shows that where there is postal voting; where there is compulsory voting; and where this is proportional representation, more people turn out to cast a ballot.

Where the UK does fail its voters, Dr Coleman says, is in the level of political debate and involvement. Our politicians just don't connect with the people who vote them into - or out of - power.

Dial-up democracy

Chris Quigley, whose company Spinon has got together with to put together online guides to e-voting for Sheffield and Liverpool, says new polling methods will bring would-be non-voters to the ballot box.

Tony Blair in Spinon's truth shock game
"So Mr Blair, have you ever been a Socialist?"
During last year's general election, the Spinon crew sought to spark people's interest in politics through satire. If you ever danced with Ann Widdecombe or put Tony Blair through a truth test, you will be familiar with their work.

"We realised that not only were young people (the age group least likely to go to the polls) interested in what we were doing, we could do something good with it. Once we'd sucked them in with humour, we then provided links to more information about politics."

This year, however, they have been brought into the fold to work on the 4.1m pilot scheme.

"Because this is a government project, we couldn't mention anything about politics on the sites. So instead we are trying to engage people in the e-voting process by emphasising that it is easy to vote, and relevant to their lifestyles."

Local elections
43% of voters turned out in 1973
That fell to 31% in 1999
Since launching last Monday, the Sheffield site has had more than 2,000 individual users. Eligible voters who signed up were alerted when the polls opened last Friday - for as well as e-voting, the city is experimenting with early voting.

Mr Quigley says those who think e-voting will trivialise the democratic process underestimate the electorate.

"People are responsible. To cast a vote by text message you do need to get your voting card out and make an informed decision. It's not something you do on a whim at the pub."

Would you be more likely to vote if you could do it by phone or over the internet? And is our interest in politics in terminal decline? Let us know using the form below.

Every Monday looks at how technology has changed our lives, and more importantly how we would like to change our lives. Let us know your views, also using the form below.

Here's some of your comments so far:

Having polling stations in local supermarkets and changing polling day from Thursday to Sunday should see a dramatic increase in voting.
Brian Doolan, Scotland

If you can't be bothered to vote then don't complain about what you get. If you don't see a politician supporting your beliefs then don't whinge, but get up and stand for them yourself.
Mark Davies, UK

Decline in voter interest has coincided with the increasing power of unelected EEC officials over our lives. When so much is manifestly decided by people we can't vote out, what's the point of voting?
Andy Edmonds, UK

While I am all in favour of anything that makes it easier for people to vote, we need to make sure that all votes count. And that means some form of proportional representation.
Karen Hughes, Scotland

We already pay our taxes and other bills online, why not vote online as well?

Ross Binnie, Canada
Online - brilliant! For it to be more democratic we need more people's voices so if making it easier to vote in the answer so be it. For the last two general elections I was out of the country and would have voted had I been able to online rather than getting a proxy vote sorted.
Tara Elliott, London

The only way I can see to cure this would be to make it compulsory to vote - this could be a real option, with an abstaining tick box on the voting slip to accommodate all views.
Tim, UK

I live in Swindon, one of the cities where you can vote online. I already voted, something I might not have done otherwise. Worked very well and my friends and relatives in Germany were impressed. Now I hope the right to vote for foreigners will be extended to general elections - after all we pay the same taxes as everyone else and are impacted by what politicians decide the same way.
Armin, German, living in the UK

If these new schemes get the turn-out higher and are immune from abuse then why not? A government with less that 30% support from the population is WRONG!
Pete, UK

It's vital that local candidates present a summary of their manifesto - e-mail could bring politicians to everyone's doorstep

Ken Lyon, UK
E-voting sounds a much more appealing way of voting, more than half the country is online. My biggest concern is security over votes - I would like to know the details of how ballot-stuffing is to be prevented. Perhaps e-voting would allow the voter to decide contentious political debates quickly and cheaply in the future, e.g. the single currency.
Bruce Collie, Scotland

For local elections to be more effective, the local council must have more powers. Even if your local council is changed, will much really change when 85% of the cash comes from the centre and much of the direction as to how that cash is spent?
Ian McCord, UK

It will be interesting to see how the pattern of voting changes if electronic voting becomes commonplace. I expect the type of people who would only vote online might have different views to the voters who currently trudge off to their polling stations.
Tim Abell, UK

I am 82 and not very mobile and so I should welcome to be able to vote by e-mail

Bob Jenkinson, UK
Interest in politics will be restored only when politicians are seen to be honest, promise-keeping, not in the pockets of big business, and when their speeches mean something that will make a positive difference to people's lives. For a lot of us, the following applies: 1) In politicians, integrity times competence equals a constant; 2) society suffers equally from equivalent levels of dishonesty and incompetence; 3) it therefore follows that it doesn't matter how, or if, you vote.
Phil, England

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Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.

See also:

25 Apr 02 | UK Politics
Why local elections matter to us all
28 Mar 01 | UK Politics
No votes for net elections
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