Thursday May 2, 2002
When the government invited local councils to run pilots of internet and mobile phone text message voting, it hoped that the experiments would boost turnout. It has done a good deal more than that for wheelchair-bound Dr Christine Barton, who can now vote unaided for the first time in more than five years.
The benefits of electronic voting for the disabled were an unexpected bonus for officials at Sheffield city council. Dr Barton comments: "I certainly think it's true that this wasn't the prime motivation. When we phoned up to find out if the voting system would link with my voice recognition software, there was a great deal of excitement, especially when they found out it would."
Dr Barton, unable to move her body below the neck due to multiple sclerosis, has spent the last couple of days testing the voice recognition software that is her link to votesheffield.com - the website that allows voters in the town's Hallam, Manor and Nether Edge wards the chance to vote online.
A member of the General Social Care Council, which regulates social workers, Dr Barton is used to voting by post, with a personal assistant filling in and witnessing her form.
Today, all she has to do is log into the website, read out two voter identification numbers and speak the name of the party she wants to select. "It's really good when technology moves in a way that not only opens up things for disabled people, but does the same thing for the non-disabled, too."
Online voting is just one of the new ways in which people across the country will be able to cast their vote in today's local elections. Liverpool is also putting online and text message voting to trial. Further afield, experiments are forging ahead with postal voting, electronic counting and early opening of polling stations.
The success of postal voting in a previous set of electoral pilots in 2000 appears to have established the principle that people will vote more often if it is made easier for them to do so.
This year, councils using the early all-postal ballots are already reporting soaring turnout. In the district of Chorley, Lancashire, turnout had risen by nearly 20 points to 53% with two days left to vote.
Is the answer to low turnout really as simple as making it easier to vote? Not according to Tallyn Grey, who turns 18 today and will be taking advantage of Sheffield's experiment to vote using a computer kiosk in the town centre.
"People are not voting more because they don't like the messages the parties are putting out, or think they're not represented or don't think there's any ideology that the parties stand for," he says.
Mr Grey admits that he would have voted anyway. So would Dr Barton. Both think the new voting methods could improve turnout, and the evidence so far suggests they are probably right.
But no amount of electronic gimmickry changes the fact that more than
half of voters said that local politics made no difference to their lives,
according to a recent NOP poll. And no amount of technical innovation will
answer Tallyn Grey's fundamental accusation that the parties, and not the
public, might be the problem.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002