The UK government has launched a public consultation into e-democracy that could result in the widespread implementation of voting via the Internet or by mobile phone.
Speaking in parliament on Tuesday, the leader of the House of Commons, Robin Cook, announced the publication of a consultation paper called In the Service of Democracy. This document lays out the government's proposed e-democracy strategy, and is intended to kick-start debate into both e-voting and e-consultation.
Cook told parliament that information and communication technology (ICT) offered new methods by which the public can engage in the democratic process.
"Our strategy for e-democracy offers new ways of participating and seeks to complement rather than replace existing structures. The paper sets out our aim of using new technologies to promote, strengthen and enhance our democratic structures," said Cook.
"Government action is proposed in two main areas: e-participation and e-voting. We outline new ways in which the mechanisms of democracy can be enhanced, by modernising voting methods, improving access to ballots and broadening the scope of government consultations," Cook added.
The government has also launched a Web site, called www.edemocracy.gov.uk where members of the public can read its strategy and respond online. This consultation process will run until 31 October, 2002.
The publication of In the Service of Democracy comes only a day after the chancellor, Gordon Brown, promised that £10m would be allocated each year to e-democracy. This money will be used to support e-voting, including funding a number of trials into e-voting in local elections.
Several e-voting trials took place in the UK's local elections in May this year. In St Albans, constituents could vote online or by using an electronic terminal at a supermarket, as well as by phone or by post. In other parts of Britain, people voted using their mobile phones.
Although the St Albans trial was a technological success -- with the results of the election calculated within six minutes -- there was little evidence that e-voting had improved voter turnout. One reason why many politicians are keen on e-democracy is that they believe it could encourage more people to take part in elections, after seeing disappointing turnout figures in the last two general elections.
E-consultation saves the nation?
The Internet is already being used to allow the UK public to be consulted about new legislation, as Westminster's more Web-savvy politicians have realised that the Internet opens up new possibilities for communicating with the public and discussing issues. Since May, hearings held by the joint committee on the draft Communications Bill have been streamed on the Internet. This has allowed members of the public hear evidence from the likes of BT, Oftel, Microsoft, Telewest and the DTI without having to travel to parliament and attempt to squeeze into a committee room, and to submit their views to an online forum. In future, infrastructure will be be in place to enable all similar committees to have their hearings broadcast online.