How a vote against capital punishment could help get it reinstated

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

Earlier this week, the new Government Digital Service published the first user-submitted petitions on the new Directgov “e-petitions” website.

The press duly made a scandal out of nothing by running headlines claiming that as a result, the Government would soon be forced to debate the return of capital punishment.

In truth, when they ran that story the petition to restore capital punushment had only a few hundred votes – more than 100,000 are needed for an issue to even be considered by the Backbench Business Committee, who then decide if it will be debated in Parliament. The petition now has in excess of 8,000 votes (it could be argued that this is a result of the press coverage), but that’s still less than a tenth of the total needed to even be considered for debate.

What’s interesting is the petition-signing mechanic. Here’s why:

Somebody has set up an opposing petition to retain the ban on capital punishment, which at the time of writing has over 15,000 signatures. What I find interesting is that if either the pro- or the anti- capital punishment petition is successful, the outcome would be that Parliament would debate whether capital punishment should be restored, or whether the ban on it should be retained.

i.e. A vote for either petition is a vote for the same thing.

When an appeal against a prison sentence is successful the sentence is reconsidered, and sometimes increased. In the same way a debate about retaining the ban on capital punishment could hypothetically result in the ban being removed.

I’m wondering if perhaps a better mechanic would be that of an online poll. As Stefan Czerniawski asked on Twitter: “If I can vote for an e-petition, why can’t I vote against it?”

It might work better if the petition were in the form of an issue, and the pubic were asked “Should this idea be debated in Parliament?” Yes / No

If the Nos were offset against the Yeses, and the threshold of 100,000 lowered to 50,000, that might work better.

UPDATE – an even better option proposed by Paul Brewer on Twitter would be to count the total number of signatures, but ask people to choose if they’re for or against the issue when they sign. That gives a view of both how important the issue is to everybody, and the split for/against.

This is exactly the kind of user behaviour that couldn’t be anticipated before launch, but since the GDS will be actively improving the e-petitions site over time it may be something that can be rolled into a future release.

I’ll definitely be watching the development of the site with interest.

One final unrelated pause for thought… I wonder if the e-petitions URL lost the hyphen in the same swamp of punctuation that the Directgov URL found a dot? ;-)

Disclosure: I work at the GDS, part of the Cabinet Office, though I wasn’t involved in the creation of the e-petitions site.

3 thoughts on “How a vote against capital punishment could help get it reinstated

  1. This is really interesting. I wonder whether being able to register “for” or “against” would be better. It would stop the counter-petition phenomenon. You would keep the 100,000 requirement (for the “Fors”) but also get data about how many are against, attached to that petition.

  2. For interest, here is what the old Number 10 petitions site used to say about voting against petitions:

    —–

    Why not “sign against” petitions?

    Many people have suggested changes to the e-petitions service during this test phase, and a number of improvements have been made as a result.

    One of the most popular proposals has been the creation of a ‘sign against’ mechanism, which would allow users to disagree with petitions. After much discussion, we have decided not to add this function.

    The rationale is this: “e-petitions” is designed essentially as a modern equivalent of the traditional petitions presented at the door of No.10. It enables people to put their views to the Prime Minister. It is not intended to be a form of quasi-referendum or unrepresentative opinion poll (professional polls use special techniques to ensure balanced samples). With a “vote against” function, that is what it would effectively become.

    It is of course possible to create a counter-petition to an existing campaign (as many people already have). This remains the best option if you disagree with a particular petition.

    —–

  3. Hi,

    Nice post, I agree with you about the need for interface improvements.

    For me, ePetitions is quite a tricky issue to really understand the workings of. Every time I think about it, I seem to end up coming to a different conclusion.

    I guess the important bit is that we don’t want the online system to be constrained by the conventions of their paper-based predecessors, which would be a failure of imagination.

    I’m not sure I quite agree about the specific changes you mentioned here though.

    For example, I think you are suggesting that the votes against the death penalty petition would be used to prevent the issue being debated.

    To me, though, it isn’t the role of the petitions system to take issues off the table like that.

    I think if you are opposed to the death penalty (or, indeed, in favour) you have to go out and make the arguments and have some faith in that process. That is how the benefits of free speech are supposed to be realised after all.

    And it isn’t quite the case that “a vote for either petition is a vote for the same thing” because the difference is the political framing and context they provide to the debate.

    The politics is as important as the online and procedural mechanics here.

    Finally, if it was a choice of “should the death penalty be debated in parliament, yes/no” then both supporters and opponents of capital punishment could vote yes to that. Their votes would lose the ability to provide clear political direction and become harder to interpret.

    For that reason, I think it would be better to continue to provide clearly opposing propositions (if people want to take differing views; they might not and that case needs to be allowed for too) but allow them either to be linked to each other or maybe displayed on the same page so that people interested in signing, say, the pro-death penalty petition are exposed to the arguments of those who take the opposite view – before they get to the point of signing.

    That way the petition is not quite so divorced from the process of (solely parliamentary) debate as it is now. The debate and education would take place during the signing process too.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts right now. Tomorrow I’ll probably be thinking something else!

    ps. Totally with you on the hyphen!

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