01 February 2024

Online democracy is rapidly spreading through the public sphere. Yet some organisations are legally prevented from adapting their decision-making processes to the digital age. This has been an ongoing struggle in the United Kingdom, where organisations such as the National Trust or the Conservative Party have readily implemented electronic balloting, while trade unions are still legally obliged to vote by post.

The impasse associated with e-voting in unions is a politically charged issue. In the UK, there have been growing obstacles to industrial action, including legal requirements to hold elections exclusively by post, and to reach to minimum turnout levels for strikes approvals. Implementing e-voting is seen as a way of empowering trade unions – which in turn could increase the costs to businesses and the government associated with strikes.

Despite the perceived costs, electronic voting seemed close to approval after the government commissioned a review in 2016, which recommended testing the technology before its implementation. The pilots of electronic balloting in trade unions were to focus on the possible risks such as fraud or hacking. Although the review received support from both sides of the political spectrum, eight years have passed without any indication of pilot results or progress toward the approval of e-voting. Tim Sharp, a Senior Policy Officer at the Trade Union Congress (TUC), talked to Democracy Technologies about the reasons behind the impasse, and the future possibilities for union e-voting in the UK.    

The case for union electronic balloting

Just like other organisations, unions have to regularly take a series of collective decisions such as appointing top officials, determining wage demands, industrial disputes and approving action. The approval of certain decisions over industrial action in the UK often requires a minimum 50% turnout rate of all eligible voters. The requirement to vote by post can make it harder for some workers to take part in democratic processes. Unions see electronic alternatives as a means to encourage workers who are less active in unions to exercise their democratic rights.

Over the years, as precarious work in the form of flexible and short-term contracts has become more abundant, union engagement has decreased. Precarious workers are often more disconnected from union activity, as are often young, and have no long-term commitment to their jobs. As a result, workplaces are often divided between insiders who engage politically and precarious outsiders, in this way posing an obstacle or a ‘democratic deficit’ to unions given their lack of representativeness of all workers.

Unions believe that new information and communication technologies such as e-voting could provide the necessary degree of inclusiveness of outsiders in decision-making processes that concern all workers, not just union members. Electronic balloting would also facilitate the democratic inclusion of workers with disabilities and mobility restrictions, prevent management or union intimidation in postal or card-check processes, and engage young workers.

The case for union electronic voting is not only supported by union members themselves. The majority of the British public, as indicated by a YouGov poll commissioned by the TUC, believes that using electronic balloting for industrial action is appropriate. According to the survey, 53% of respondents support secure, dedicated website voting for strike action, while only 20% find it inappropriate.

Government response to e-voting

Concerns for e-balloting are mostly centred around security during and after the voting process. Votes may be manipulated through hacking, fraud or technical issues and the risk of voting coercion is not fully removed. After the voting procedure, there are concerns over ensuring the privacy of personal data.  

In response to these demands, in 2016, the government commissioned an independent review for union e-balloting. The review recommended a pilot program to test e-balloting in non-statutory ballots prior to its implementation. The pilot program would evaluate the resilience of e-ballot systems to cyber attacks, the effectiveness of voter identification and its effects on participation. Other recommendations from the review include to retain the option of postal balloting and to guarantee verifiability properties so that voters, observers and scrutineers can independently verify aspects of the election.

The government has yet to act on these recommendations. The response from international organisations has been clear: since 2018, the International Labor Organization (ILO) has issued a call to UK ministers to bring union laws, considered as outliers in Europe, closer to international law. Moreover, the ILO has demanded a review of the Trade Union Act and Strikes Bill to allow unions to use electronic ballots. 

Questions over reasons for delays

The lack of responsiveness has led some to suggest that government concerns over union e-voting go beyond security concerns. As Tim Sharp, a Senior Policy Officer at the TUC told Democracy Technologies: “the government has focused its efforts on making life more difficult for trade unions and workers, rather than fostering union democracy. For instance, it recently passed a law allowing minimum service levels to be introduced in a range of sectors including education, transport, border security, nuclear decommissioning, health services and fire and safety. There appears to be little serious attempt to engage with any concerns about security or other aspects of bringing in a modern voting regime.”

The UK government has also previously voiced the concern that allowing for greater participation will reduce ministers decision-making power over industrial disputes. However, a legal opinion conducted by TUC makes clear that secretaries in the transport sector for example have “very extensive powers” in negotiation. It may be a question of protecting investors’ confidence over workers’ rights, given the potential fall in the stock market after the implementation of e-voting.

The future of union e-voting in the UK 

Other countries use electronic voting and have not experienced cases of fraud or lack of security. In Denmark for example, unions have been using e-voting for over ten years. Trade union votes are overseen by Assembly Voting, a balloting service provider, with Deloitte as the auditor. Assembly Voting reported that participation has increased among the 11 Danish trade unions now using e-voting.

The future of e-voting in the UK is a political issue. “The Labour Party is committed to introducing electronic balloting for statutory votes such as union elections and on industrial action,” says Sharp. “A change of government at the next election – an election is expected before the end of 2024 – could well mean modern voting methods being allowed for union statutory ballots.” If e-voting is approved by the next government, the unions will be ready to implement the changes: “Trade unions already routinely use electronic balloting for non-statutory ballots such as gauging member views on pay deals or indicative ballots on taking industrial action, so they are familiar with the technique.”

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