As I noted on Google+ this morning, the upcoming police commissioner elections demonstrate quite clearly the impact that the digital divide can have on the democratic process. A number of independent candidates are calling for the government to allow state-funded mailshots to all voters. Ann Barnes, standing for election in Kent as an independent, is one of many concerned that the current situation weights the system heavily in favour of political candidates backed by their party machines. This is because, unlike every other election, details and policies about every candidate will not be posted out as a matter of course. Information will be available on all the candidates, but voters will have to go online to access it.
Despite previous warnings from the Electoral Commission, the government has decided to ignore concerns that those without an internet connection will be seriously disadvantaged as a result of the election process. With such a process in place, it is clear that democratic engagement will suffer and those without access to the internet are likely to be at a substantial disadvantage to those who have a connection (or at least the current situation will make it difficult for them to make an informed decision). This is particularly concerning given the type of person least likely to have access access to the internet – generally those on low incomes or the elderly. It is these groups that have most to lose from being excluded from the democratic process and will be severely marginalised as a result of the way these elections are being organised.
The Poverty Site notes that the British Crime Survey reveals which groups are most affected by the perception of crime:
Adults on low incomes, in bad health, living in inner city areas and social renting are all more likely to be very worried about being a victim of crime than adults on average. [emphasis mine]
These are, in fact, the very groups who are least likely to have an internet connection. As a consequence, those most concerned about crime are going to be at a distinct disadvantage and their ability to have a say in the way policing is conducted will face a very serious barrier. Given that the point of the process is to make the police more accountable to the public they serve, this process is clearly not fit for purpose.
Of course, the government can argue that the information is out there as it is available online and people can always visit their local library if they need to find out about the candidates. But this is not satisfactory. By ensuring the information is only available online, a barrier is being placed before the poorest in society. There is no such barrier for the ‘information rich’ (ie those with an internet connection). Effectively, the ‘information rich’ in society will have a greater say on policing the community, leading to the kind of policing that will favour them (or else why would they vote for them?) rather than the ‘information poor’ (those who are most concerned about becoming a victim of crime). For a democracy, this is a very dangerous thing.
The government are, of course, quick to play down such fears and talk up the ‘superior’ system of policing these elections will supposedly create. Minister for policing and criminal justice, Nick Herbert MP, dismissed these fears on the Today programme this morning. As far as they are concerned, a low turn-out is not of great concern as the outcome will still be, in their eyes at least, preferable to the system it is replacing.
The contrast with the reaction of government ministers when it comes to union members voting to strike is stark. As far as the Conservatives are concerned, voting for a days ‘disruption’ caused by a strike should be held to higher democratic standards than the vote for a police commissioner. A police commissioner who will set police priorities over a four year period. If a threshold is justified for strike action, it surely must be justified when it comes to policing?
Whatever the outcome of these elections, it is clear that engagement in this democratic process for the ‘information poor’ will be far more problematic than for the ‘information rich’. The impact of the digital divide has, of course, been felt before in elections, this is not a first. However, the extent and impact of this exclusion could have very serious consequences for those that are, as the British Crime Survey reveals, most likely to be worried about being a victim of crime. With the poorest disenfranchised, what incentive is there for an elected police commissioner to attend to their concerns? Will they focus only on the concerns of those who are likely to elect them? Or will they truly represent the interests of the entire community? I suspect the answer to this is obvious.