Fully funded Leverhulme Magna Carta PhD Studentship

Department of Politics and International Relations
Royal Holloway, University of London
United Kingdom
Application Deadline
Contact Email

The Department of Politics and International Relations and the School of Lawat Royal Holloway, University of London are offering a fully-funded Leverhulme Magna Carta PhD Scholarshipfor three years from September 2017. The scholarship is for a project on the (reluctant) introduction of e-voting systems. The successful candidate will be supervised by Dr Kaat Smetsand Mr Robert Jago. The PhD candidate will become part of the Magna Carta Doctoral Centre and is expected to contribute to its activities.

The Leverhulme Doctoral Scholarships are intended for multi-disciplinary research into the impact of digital technologies on personal liberty, addressing the global challenge of how to balance freedom, privacy and security, embracing the spirit and principles of the original Magna Carta but updated to reflect the very different society in which we now live.

Project title:

Voting in the digital age: a study of the (reluctant) introduction of e-voting systems

Project description:

While the 2017 United Kingdom General Elections appear an exception (see e.g. YouGov 2017), turnout among young adults has been a concern in the UK ever since the turnout gap between young and old started to widen dramatically in the early 1990s (Smets 2012, 2016). Technological innovations are often considered a piece of the puzzle to solving the youth participation problem (see e.g. Macintosh et al. 2003, Calenda and Meijer 2009, Bakker and De Vreese 2011).  In the digital age where online activities are the norm, it is therefore surprising that electronic voting (e-voting) is not yet very widespread as evidence shows that young people are keen online voters in places where they have this opportunity (Alvarez and Hall 2003, Gerlach and Gasser 2009).

Various countries have experimented with online (via the internet) and offline (via voting machines) electronic voting. On the far end of the spectrum is the e-minded Estonia where e-voting was successfully introduced in the mid-2000s. In the 2014 election to the European Parliament nearly one-third of Estonian voters cast their vote online. The Netherlands, can be found in the middle. The country was an early adopter of electronic voting at the national level in the late 1980s, but abolished e-voting in the mid 2000s. In the UK, lastly, e-voting pilots have taken place at the sub-national level but there are no plans to introduce online or offline e-voting on a more widespread basis. How can it be that in the digital age ballots are still counted by hand – a process that is both inefficient, slow, and also often results in a number of recounts (see e.g. Richmond Park and Hastings and Rye in the 2017 UK General Election)? Why is there a reluctance to introduce e-voting systems? Why is postal voting, which continues to increase and is open to widespread abuse, apparently more popular than e-voting? And could e-voting be part of the solution the youth participation problem?

E-voting should ensure ‘fair, free, secret, secure and reliable elections’ (Mitrou 2004, p. 4). The first source of controversy surrounding the introduction of e-voting relates to the concept of universal suffrage, as the usability (and thus inclusiveness) of e-voting machines and online voting is questioned. Opponents argue that innovations in voting technologies run the risk of enhancing the divisions between the haves and have nots, between those already free of hurdles to electoral participation and those still on the margins of electoral democracy (Alvarez and Nagler, 2000; van Dijk, 2000, 2005; Margolis and Resnick, 2000; Putnam, 2001; Wilhelm, 2000). Proponents, on the other hand see a positive potential of e-voting in reducing the physical voting costs for all and lowering participation hurdles for people who have mobility problems (Trechsel 2007, Vassil et al. 2016). In this sense e-voting is considered a possible remedy for the continuing (youth) turnout decline in Western democracies.

The fact that (online) e-voting systems need to authenticate voters, that results need to be verifiable, but that votes should nonetheless be anonymous is also a source of contention. The secret ballot requirement is a cornerstone of election law and international treaties, and the development of software that allows authentication, verification, and simultaneously guarantees anonymity is more complicated than it seems. The security issue that is linked to the disparity between access and the risk of corruption is a bone of contention (Ranjitha et al 2016, Cortier and Wiedling 2017). What happens when security and the secret ballot requirement are breached is another area that needs to be considered. Questions of security testing, public disclosure, auditing and assembling systems from separate components, permeate any discussion of the legal issues facing election officials in an e-voting world (Burstein et al. 2007), and an exploration of the contemporary significance of these concepts will be key to this multi-disciplinary project.

This project will highlight the controversies around the introduction of e-voting systems, investigate the extent to which these controversies can be overcome, and assess the extent to which e-voting can address generally declining (youth) turnout. The project is comparative and will use a mixed methods approach. The starting point will be a scoping exercise. Using a traffic light system (green for yes, amber for some, and red for no e-voting) the project will consider the implementation of e-voting systems in different countries. This scoping exercise will inform the selection of case studies for the remainder of the project. A quantitative analysis of secondary data (e.g. election surveys) will be used to research the questions surrounding accessibility. The issues surrounding the legal and security controversies require a quantitative approach, for example a content analysis of legal and political documents combined with interviews with policy makers, politicians and (legal) experts.

We invite applicants to submit a 2000-word proposal in relation to the described project. Applicants should have a background in Politics and/or Law, need to have completed a Masters degree and need to demonstrate to have relevant research methods training.


  • Applicants should have completed a Masters degree (or equivalent from a university outside the United Kingdom) in a relevant subject by the start date.

Funding Details:  

  • Starts September 2017 (with the possibility of a January 2018 start date)
  • Three-year award
  • HEU fee waiver worth £4,195 and maintenance of £16,553 p.a.
  • Access to departmental research and training allowance

How to apply:   

To apply for this studentship please follow the steps outlined below.

1) Apply for a PhD in Politics to the University as described here:  https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/studyhere/postgraduate/applying/howtoap…. When prompted, you should provide details of the funding you are applying for, quoting ‘Leverhulme Magna Carta Scholarship (e-voting)’.

2) Send a separate email to and Kaat Smets (Kaat.Smets@rhul.ac.uk) and Robert Jago (Robert.Jago@rhul.ac.uk)  including:

(a) A brief cover letter outlining why you are applying for the Leverhulme Magna CartaPhD Studentship, and why you would be suitable to work on a project on e-voting.

(b) A proposal (max 2000 words) outlining the project and how it aligns with the project description. Include research question, context, methodology, and proposed thesis structure and timeline.

(c) A curriculum vitae.

d) Contact details (email and postal addresses) for two academic referees. Please provide your referees with a copy of your research proposal so that they are able to comment specifically on your suitability to pursue the course of study you have described.

Shortlisted candidates will be interviewed.

Application Deadline: 2 August 2017

Further Enquiries: