Why won’t electronic voting return to Parliament?

This week the Hybrid Parliament that has been in operation since 22nd April ended. The Hybrid Parliament saw large screens set up in the House of Commons chamber to allow members to participate in debates via Zoom. In addition, MPs voted electronically meaning that everyone could participate.

MPs remotely attend the House of Commons in a 'virtual parliament'
The Hybrid Parliament saw screens erected in the chamber to allow MPs to participate remotely.

As part of the return of Parliament, a vote was held on 2nd June over how Parliament should proceed to operate whilst COVID-19 is still prominent and some important decisions were taken:

  • Parliament should continue to follow the social distancing rules as outlined by Public Health England.
  • Members can only participate in debates in person.
  • Divisions will take place in person, with no electronic voting.
  • Members absent from the House of Commons will be able to vote by proxy only.

The ending of the Hybrid Parliament has not bee without controversy. Critics have said that it will prevent vulnerable MPs from being participate in proceedings. In Prime Ministers Questions Keir Starmer said that:

The scenes yesterday of MPs queuing to vote and Members being unable to vote were, frankly, shameful. This should not be a political issue. Members on all sides know that this is completely unnecessary and unacceptable. If any other employer behaved like this, it would be a clear and obvious case of indirect discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, so may I urge the Prime Minister to stop this and to continue to allow online voting and the hybrid Parliament to resume?

The spectacle of MPs snaking around the House of Commons in a socially distanced way to vote was unusual, to say the least.

MPs forced to form 'ludicrous Alton Towers-style' queue to vote in ...
MPS in Westminster Hall as part of the 1/2 mile queue to register a single vote in the chamber

So, how do votes take place in Parliament and would electronic voting provide a long-term alternative?

When the Speaker needs to test the division of the House he will start by taking a voice vote. In this procedure, MPs will shot ‘Aye’ or ‘Nay’ depending on there opinion. For some votes, a voice vote is easy with no or few dissenting voices. A good example is the question on whether the House should adjourn for the evening. However, if the result of the voice vote in unclear, the Speaker will call for a division:

Copyright: BBC – Inside the Commons (2015)

At this point, bells ring across the House of Commons and MPs have 8 minutes to register their vote. They do this my entering one of two lobbies, which are either side of the House of Commons. As they enter the lobby, their vote is recorded by tellers. The result is then bought to the House of Commons and announced by the Speaker.

There are some advantages of this system:

  • It encourages MPs to take part in debates. If they know they are going to be expected to vote near the Commons Chamber, there is a greater chance they will attend the debate.
  • It is transparent. Not only can people see which lobby MPs go into, the vote is also recorded in Hansard, the parliamentary record.
  • It allows MPs to enter a dialogue with each other. They can conduct parliamentary business while waiting to be counted in the division lobby. This is particularly a benefit for Backbench MPs who otherwise have little chance to mingle with Cabinet Members and other Frontbench MPs.

Equally, there are some clear problems with this system:

  • It is extremely time consuming. Each vote takes approximately 15 minutes. In some debates, where multiple amendments have been made to a bill, there could be upwards of ten votes on a single bill.
  • It is inconvenient. It forces MPs to drop whatever they are doing to race to the Commons chamber. This is a particular problem for Government Ministers who are unlikely to be in the vicinity of the chamber on most days.
  • It increases the power the whips. The whips can wait outisde the lobbies and urge (or even demand) that their MPs go into the right one. In many instances, MPs do not even know what they are voting for, they simply walk into the lobby that their whips tell them to.

For many years it has been suggested that electronic voting might be a better system that the lobby system used in the House of Commons and House of Lords. Other parliaments, including the Scottish Parliament, have used electronic voting successfully:

A comparison of voting times in the Scottish and Westminster Parliaments

Yet, for many years, Westminster has appeared reticent for change. Yet, COVID-19 made electronic voting a necessity. Between 22nd April and 2nd May 2020 there were 10 divisions held via electronic voting. Under this system:

  • MPs receive a notification by text message and email.
  • They have 15 minutes to cast their vote
  • They do so by clicking Aye or Nay (the same as the lobbies)

The system seem to be well adopted. However, there as embarrassing moment when Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, accidentally ignored collective responsibility and voted against his own government:

The Chancellor dd not expect to find himself in the same lobby as Keir Starmer on an amendment to the Agriculture Bill

Some the most important advantages of the system are that they allow MPs who are ill or absent from being able to vote. This prevents the embarrassing scenes last year when one MP, Tulip Siddiq, was forced to delay her C-Section to vote on the Withdrawal Agreement. The system, as shown when compared to the Scottish system, is also time efficient.

What is lost in the system is the transparency of MPs walking into a certain lobby. This, sadly, is why the major parties have never been willing to fully support electronic voting. Electronic voting reduces the power of the whips, something the two main parties do not want to risk. This is undoubtedly why the Conservatives were so quick this week to whip their MPs to suspend electronic voting and force MPs to vote in person, queuing across Parliament. COVID-19 should have seen electronic voting seriously considered as a sensible modernising change in the House of Commons, instead, tradition (and party political interest) has again won the day.

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