With many legislatures now returning to a relative normality, considerations are being given as to whether electronic and remote voting, scaled up during the pandemic, should remain as a permanent feature. David Whelan looks at whether the Northern Ireland Assembly is behind the curve in its use of digital technology.
The pandemic forced legislatures across the world to adapt new ways of working to allow for the continuation of parliamentary business, including the introduction of electronic voting and remote voting. In Northern Ireland however, in response to the pandemic, the Assembly introduced temporary provisions in Standing Orders to allow proxy voting until January 2021.
Unlike neighbouring legislatures, the Northern Ireland Assembly did not have an electronic voting system in place to allow for expansion of the system to facilitate digital remote voting.
Standing Orders 112 and 115 allow for proxy voting in the chamber and committees respectively (along with other measures for committees including voting by video link or telephone) and the Procedures Committee is considering instances in which proxy voting could be retained on a more permanent basis and how this might be reflected in Standing Orders.
Northern Ireland appears to be behind the curve when considering actions taken by neighbouring legislatures.
A research paper for the Committee on Procedures by the Northern Ireland Assembly’s research and information service recently took stock of the use of electronic voting in other legislatures and the effect of Covid-19 on business-as-usual.
In Scotland, an electronic system of voting in Parliament has been in place since the Parliament opened in 2004. In 2011, the system had to be replaced at a cost of £270,000 due to the supplier no longer being able to maintain the system. At the outset of the pandemic, the Parliament legislated for a change that allowed other voting systems to be used in the Chamber. The remote voting system was first used in the week commencing 11 August 2020 and Scotland’s Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee has now recommended a permanent change.
The Welsh Parliament is also an electronic debating chamber, with members’ individual computers having access to information relevant to plenary proceeding and dull access to the rest of their ICT system. In July 2020, secure app was developed to allow members to continue to vote electronically while not in the chamber.
In contrast, there was no provision for electronic voting in the House of Commons chamber until the Covid-19 pandemic. Alterations to allow for the continuation of parliamentary business, including remote voting (the first remote voting division was held in May 2020) were stressed to be temporary. The voting system used the existing MemberHub, which MPs use for tabling parliamentary questions or early day motions.
On 20 May 2020, the order on remote voting lapsed and was not renewed. The HoC’s Procedures committee stated that significant additional resource and expenditure would be required if the House were required to develop a system to provide sufficient authentication assurance on a permanent basis.
Unlike the House of Commons, the Lords has kept its electronic voting system as an interim measure until the feasibility of a pass reader system can be explored. PeerHub, a new online hub was developed, and remote voting was introduced on 15 June 2020. However, members are only eligible to participate in a vote if they are doing so from a place of work on the Parliamentary Estate.
Electronic voting was introduced by Dáil Eireann in 2002. Most division votes are taken electronically but some exemptions exist, including motions of no confidence in the Government. Remote electronic voting was not available during the pandemic as the Irish Constitution refers to “members present and voting”. In response to Covid-19, Dáil Éireann moved to the Dublin Convention Centre to accommodate social distancing and on those occasions when it sat in Leinster House, proportionate representation from each political party was used.
However, a Private Member’s Bill, currently progressing through the Dáil, would amend the Constitution to allow remote voting.
The report to the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Procedures Committee summarised: “The research has identified that the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Parliament and Dáil Éireann have permanent, in-house electronic voting, with members voting at assigned seats. The experience of these legislatures shows that this method of voting is not without controversy and technical issues, but generally it has appeared to work well and is accepted by members.
“The need for a reduction in the number of members present in chambers necessitated a rethink on voting procedures, with the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Parliament moving to remote electronic voting. The House of Commons and House of Lords, neither of which had a history of electronic voting, utilised apps to ensure that members could vote remotely.”
Issues identified for consideration, following a review of practices in other legislatures, for a Northern Ireland context include the cost of installing and maintaining an electronic voting system, including necessary changes to the current Assembly chamber; the creation of procedural safeguards in the case of technology failure; and whether any items would be excluded from electronic voting.
Additional consideration would also have to be given to safeguarding requirements against corruption or abuse and whether an electronic system would enable remote voting.
A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Assembly said: “The Speaker of the Assembly has raised with both the Committee on Procedures and the Business Committee that the introduction of electronic voting has the potential to improve the management of business in the Assembly Chamber and merits detailed consideration… The Committee on Procedures and the Assembly Commission are continuing to liaise to explore issues in relation to their respective responsibilities if electronic voting was to be introduced.”