Auckland University of Technology senior researcher Julienne Molineaux says using online voting in the 2022 local body elections is not going to solve the problem of poor voter turnout.
And she says it won’t increase the number of young people taking part in the democratic process either.
In the 2016 local body elections only 38.5% of eligible voters in Auckland bothered to cast a vote. Nationwide the turnout was just 43%. Voter apathy remains a real problem.
“Overseas experience is that online voting tends to be popular with those who are already likely to vote and who have high levels of digital literacy,” Molineaux says. “It does little to help add new people to the voter pool, and this holds even for young voters.”
Technology's not the problem
And Molineaux says the reason most people don’t vote in local body elections has little to do with the technology used.
She says the reasons people give for not voting include them not being interested in politics or local government; low levels of civics literacy; or people wanting to vote but simply not having enough information about the candidates, policies or issues.
In May last year the Auckland Council announced that it was planning to trial online voting at this year’s campaign. But its support was conditional on the government passing amendments to the Local Electoral Act 2001 in time to allow an online voting system to be trialled. The council also called for the management of the online security risks, confirmation of related costs and final Auckland Council approval before the trial could go ahead.
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff said at the time that online voting was the future and if the Auckland Council continued to rely solely on postal voting it risked losing a whole generation of voters. But the online voting trial was cancelled at the end of 2018 due to a lack of funding from central government and the fact the law changes wouldn’t make it through parliament in time for the election.
IT security concerns
In an interview this week with Stuff Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she would like to see online voting in place for the local body elections in 2022. But she said the sticking point to date has been being able to provide a system that is both accessible and secure for voters.
Molineaux agrees security is a major concern that will have to be addressed before online voting can go ahead.
“IT security experts are unanimous that voting systems are vulnerable to hacking and corruption.”
In a report released in August which she authored titled: Solving and creating problems: Online voting in New Zealand she questioned the claims by councils about the cost of trialling online voting.
“The winning tender for the 2019 trial, Smartmatic, bid $4.2 million, but this was deemed too high by participating councils. $4.2 million for a software system is a drop in the bucket when compared to the $1 billion plus spending on IT services and systems (capital and operating systems) since the Auckland Council was formed in 2010 and new systems were built, or the more than $20 million spent on software for Auckland Council (excluding Watercare and Auckland Transport) in 2015 alone. Yet the trial was dropped ostensibly for cost reasons,” Molineaux said in the report.
But Molineaux says introducing online voting would still require a lot of work.
“Should it go ahead, the design of any new online system will need to be robust, and not done on the cheap. To win the trust of the local IT community it will require genuine consultation and openness about processes and design. That large scale IT projects routinely fail to meet their objectives or be on time or on budget, does not help with public confidence.”
She describes online voting as superficially attractive.
“It will probably be popular with many people – witness the 82% online participation in Census 2018. But also note that the overall turnout with the Census dropped to a level that undermines the results, particularly for Māori and Pasifika residents. The census autopsy reveals a series of design problems, including an under-estimation of the number of people who wished to complete their forms on paper.”
Local Government New Zealand’s principal policy advisor Mike Reid says there is a need to find an alternative to the existing postal voting system.
“We know that the postal system is in decline, and that alternatives are needed for local elections,” Reid says. “Online voting is one possible alternative, and an Auckland Council survey showed voters overwhelmingly favoured it, but we’ll need to work closer with the government to assess its viability.”
He says it’s too early to say whether the nationwide turnout in the 2019 local body elections is up or down.
“So far, voter turnout across the country has been mixed. While there has been a narrative in the media that turnout is very low, in many areas it’s up, or very close to 2016 levels at the same time. The main areas where turnout appears to be done is in Auckland and Wellington. Rural and provincial areas tend to be much higher.”
According to Auckland electoral officer Dale Ofsoske as of Thursday afternoon 29.8% of Auckland's eligible voters had caste a vote.