Thursday, 28 April 2016

A Tale of Two Islands

As I write this, the Guernsey elections are underway. Unlike Jersey, where collective responsibility has cemented the government together, and silenced dissent amongst Ministers and Assistant Ministers, Guernsey sees Ministerial government as a failed experiment.

C.S. Lewis notable said this on progress:

“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

It remains to be seen who has taken the wrong road, but Guernsey and Jersey have now taken very different roads, and for Guernsey there is a return to greater participation by all elected members in the government of their Island, as they return to a committee structure.

The status of scrutiny in Jersey, which was supposed to provide balance, is surely now questionable since the refusal of the Treasury Minister and the States of Jersey Development Company to supply information to Scrutiny in a timely manner, and then with caveats and grudgingly. If Scrutiny cannot access information to do its job, then it is a step along the wrong road.

And while collective responsibility works with a cabinet whose membership is very small compared to the whole number of members of Parliament, it remains to be seen whether it can work when those drawn into its remit effectively comprise almost half of the States.

A record number of people have given their stamp of approval to Guernsey's 2016 election by signing up for postal votes. The popularity of posting your vote - allowed in Guernsey since 1972 - has grown significantly in recent years. Voters had until midday on Election day to deliver their completed ballot slips, either by post or by hand, to Sir Charles Frossard House. Postal votes are available to all islanders who wish to vote in this way.

In Jersey, postal voting is restricted to those outside of the Island at the time of the election. Pre-poll voting, including the necessity of election officials to visit establishments (such as old people’s homes) has taken its place. This is clearly not nearly as convenient as being able to apply for a form, and then sign an election form and post it in, without having to be inconvenienced by attending a polling station.

In many respects this is a backward step, which was largely a result of postal voting apparently leading to increased numbers of Jersey Democratic Alliance votes in St Helier, and the suspicion of undue influence. In fact, the Reform vote has held up despite the absence of postal voting, but a new problem has arisen – that of the astute politician who visits an old people’s home shortly before a visit from the electoral officers attend to take votes.

The number of seats in Guernsey has been reduced from seven to five, as part of the wider cut to the total number of deputies from 45 to 38. Despite calls for a reduction of seats in Jersey, it has singularly failed to do anything like that, as the different vested interests all manage to spoil any suggestions from getting past the States.

A total of 30,320 people, just under half of the population of Guernsey and Herm, have registered to vote in the election. In 2014, the Jersey elections saw a total of 39,697 registered voters in Jersey, a considerably lower percentage of the population of Jersey, coming in at only 39.7%. Registration in Guernsey can be done online, while Jersey hopes to have that in place by the next elections.

Guernsey also has seven electoral districts, and the ratio of voters to Deputies standing is pretty close across the board. In Jersey,Parishes like St Mary have considerably more voter power than those in larger Parishes, and a vote in St Mary is worth double that of a vote in St Helier. Despite many attempts to get fairer representation, this has failed, mainly because of the different vested interests in the States blocking change.

However, Guernsey still has no electronic voting within their States Chamber, whereas it has been present in Jersey for many years. As the Guernsey Press asked: “Where, for example, is a single form breaking down how each member has voted on each contentious issue over the past two years? “ In Guernsey it is almost impossible to see patterns in voting; in Jersey it is recorded and available in hours.

Neither Island is yet looking at electronic voting at polls. Jersey is to consider voting machines at polling stations, but that is about the extent. As is so often the case, rather archaic arguments about security are raised, as if we were still living in the age when the internet was born. Online banking systems use sophisticated security methods all the time, and quite frankly, if the powers that be have so little faith in electronic voting, they should ensure that no States employees or members use electronic banking.

As the Internation Business Times commented: “We can bank, shop, communicate, and order a new passport or driving license online, so why can't we use the internet to vote”. And yet there are some problems – as Graham Cluley pointed out, a denial of service attack on the voting portal on election day could well cause major problems.

But even electronic voting machines would be a step in the right direction, because it would enable votes to be counted almost instantaneously, and would also allow the move to more representative voting systems than first past the post. Other systems invariable require longer times to collate votes, but a voting machine would take that problem away.

In the meantime, Guernsey’s election will be over by the time you read this, and they will be moving towards a return to Committee government. Time alone will tell whether Guernsey was right to call it a day on Ministerial government, or whether Jersey was correct to sail full steam ahead through sometimes foggy waters.

Postscript: turnout is 71.9% , compared to Jersey at a paltry 45-50%, and across the island, 21,803 people voted on Wednesday - 7% more than in 2012 (71.4%). Real change has taken place, which seems not to be possible in Jersey, and I do wonder if it is time to revisit larger constituences, as at present Minister can effectively be in small "safe" seats, like St Lawrence, where there was not even an election in 2014.

In Guernsey, they can see that their votes can make a difference, and what a difference to registration and turnout. Jersey's low registration, and low turnout, are indicative that there is something seriously amiss, and a huge disconnect between potential electorate and the States. That is not good for a healthy democracy.


James said...

As is so often the case, rather archaic arguments about security are raised, as if we were still living in the age when the Internet was born.

Not so. The problem with electronic voting across the Internet is simple: you cannot prove that the vote cast in my name was cast by me.

Add whatever safeguard you like: e-ID with a digital signature combined with multi-factor authentication will still not stop a spouse inside his/her own home from casting a vote in the partner's name, and the system will be none the wiser. Introduce e-voting into a population with substantial levels of digital illiteracy and the shysters will be out there committing electoral fraud before you know it.

The answer is not voting machines, or internet voting: the answer is elections that allow the general population to have some degree of say in what the policy of the island is. The blatantly obvious answer is that no elected assembly can have any degree of credibility when a quarter of its members walk into office unelected, and the same chamber has three classes of members.

The Option A approach - one member class, multi-member constituencies - has been vindicated in Guernsey.

That's progress.

When will you back it?

TonyTheProf said...

But the same is true of bank transactions. How do I know that the bank transaction made in my name is by me? Personally I am far more worried about losing control of a bank account than losing one vote! And I suspect the majority of people and businesses using internet banking are.

TonyTheProf said...

How many occasions have spouses / partners got money from bank accounts in one user's name? Surely they don't all have joint accounts!