By Rab Bruce’s Spider

So Gordon Brown says this is not the time for another IndyRef. What a surprise that is. However, many people do seem to agree with him that holding a referendum in the midst of a pandemic is a bad idea. Such a referendum would require millions of voters to gather in polling stations, thus presenting a risk of passing on the disease. What Gordon Brown completely fails to do is offer any suggestions as to how such risks could be mitigated. For arch-Unionists like him, there must always be an excuse for not allowing the people of Scotland a democratic choice.

So let’s look at voting and see if there is any way it can be improved. This is actually a sore subject for me because, as a blind person, voting independently is something I simply cannot do.

The most obvious solution is to allow people to vote online if at all possible, either through a phone or tablet app, or via a website. The problem with this approach, so the counter-argument goes, is that such things cannot be secure. I must admit to some scepticism on this point since many of us use online banking and, although some scams out there are aimed at obtaining ways to access our accounts, Banks generally have very secure apps, with procedures like Face ID, Touch ID, text verifications and call-backs. Surely it cannot be beyond the wit of Scots to come up with a secure voting system?

But time is the other issue. It may well be possible to devise and develop a secure app to allow online voting, but not everyone has access to the internet, and for those of us who do, how long will it take to develop such a system? Too long, perhaps.

So here’s another suggestion which would not only help mitigate Covid risks, it would also help visually impaired voters vote independently.

First of all, Polling Cards are sent to every voter. In addition, each Polling Station has a supply of ballot papers. Systems already exist to produce these. So why not have the ballot papers available online in an accessible format? Anyone who has access to the internet can go online, find the ballot paper for their polling station, perhaps by following a link printed on their Polling Card. (Yes, there’s an accessibility issue there, but the system should also allow people to search online to locate the appropriate ballot paper.

This means you can complete the ballot paper online. Then print it and have it ready to take to the Polling Station. At the same time, a separate page would also be printed, showing your name and address, plus an identifier number for your ballot paper which would have been allocated by the system.

As regards actual voting, the same system should allow users to book a time slot when they can visit their Poling Station. This will hopefully help reduce the number of people arriving at the same time. With social distancing measures in place, people can be admitted one at a time, present their voting details to allow the officials to mark them off the list and record the number of their ballot paper, then they can drop their pre-printed ballot paper into the box. This will speed up the entire process.

Of course, there will always be some people for whom arrangements like this will not work, and who need to vote in the traditional way, but surely this solution would at least help reduce the number of people arriving at the same time. After all, GP surgeries use a time slot system for dispensing the flu vaccine, and even my local library has a time slot system for picking up and returning books. OK, voting in a referendum will mean far greater numbers of people are involved, but we could also change the way we vote so that the Polling stations are open over a weekend. This would save closing schools which act as Poling Stations, and would allow a longer time for people to cast their votes. Indeed, Polling Stations could even open at around 7.30 pm on a Friday, remain open from 6 am until 10 pm Saturday and Sunday, thus making many more time slot available.

I’m sure people can point out flaws in this, but I’m not saying it must be done like this for everyone. However, if a majority of people were able to vote this way, the risks of contagion would surely be minimal. It also could be used for any Election, not just for a referendum. With Holyrood elections coming up next year, a system like this may well make voting safer and easier for a great many people, not just for the visually impaired.

One thing you can be sure of, though, is that Gordon Brown will insist it is impossible. Just because. Unlike Brown, however, I do not believe that Scots are genetically programmed to be incapable of devising solutions to problems. As long as we don’t let the UK Government devise a world-beating system for us, I’m confident we could come up with something like this without too much difficulty.