You can’t kill the elephant in the room with a silver bullet, say academics Andy Asquith and Julienne Molineaux.
The issue of online or e-voting in local body elections is once again on the agenda. A consortia of nine local bodies, all seemingly convinced of the benefits of such a move, are considering trialling e-voting for the 2019 elections: Auckland, Gisborne, Hamilton, Marlborough, Matamata-Piako, Palmerston North, Selwyn, Tauranga and Wellington. However, we are unaware of any robust evidence from anywhere in the world which demonstrates that a shift to online voting will solve the problems facing local government in this country.
The central thrust for e-voting contains two key arguments: the shortcomings of the current mechanism – particularly around the postal service – and the convenience e-voting would bring.
We concur that postal voting has its downsides: partly because of the decline in postal services; partly because it has privacy and security challenges. Nonetheless, we think the shift towards e-voting is not the answer.
Although the reduction of post boxes in recent years is problematic, we live in a country where we all currently experience some form of postal service irrespective of income and social class. In contrast, there are still significant numbers of our fellow citizens who are digitally marginalised – either technically or financially or in terms of confidence – who would effectively be disenfranchised by a move towards e-voting.
This digital marginalisation is concentrated in some of the population groups that are already unlikely to vote, risking further entrenchment of their lack of participation. Witness Census 2018, when following a move to online forms and a downgrading of the paper census, Maori participation levels dropped to a point that threatens the viability of the census results.
The convenience argument is problematic. Convenient for whom? Those who already vote? A move to online voting may suit the middle classes with white collar jobs and up-to-date devices, but risks widening inequality in New Zealand.
American research indicates the cost of voting to electors isn’t the convenience as such, but becoming engaged and informed (Berinsky, 2016). And, we contend, these are the major problems local government should be focussing on: how to increase engagement with, and information about, the system, candidates and policies.
Put simply, if your average Kiwi does not know the relevance, role and importance of their local body in their life, they are highly unlikely to participate in elections, irrespective of the voting mechanism used.
Much is made about the connectedness of younger people via social media, and that e-voting would open up participation to a whole new generation. However, we can’t see how younger people would be attracted to vote for male, pale and stale candidates simply because they could do it from their cellphone or other hand-held device.
Placing a complex voting paper onto an electronic device does not make the ballot paper any less complex.
Evidence from overseas is that a move to online voting does not lead to increased turnout, even among younger voters (Goodman and Stokes, 2017). Research by LGNZ on the reasons people didn’t vote in 2016 suggest the mode of voting was not the problem (see box story Why people don’t vote).
E-voting puts further distance between the institutions being elected and the electors. Ideas like identity, association and community become distant phenomena. Again, we are back to the issue of relevance – why should I engage with an institution which is irrelevant to me?
One alternative which is too readily dismissed is the return of in-person voting. This, it is argued, would be too complicated or expensive, although how much more than postal voting is never explored.
In-person voting, along with a vocal election campaign to infuse, invigorate and excite the citizens of a locality, might just be what we need to encourage engagement.
Key here is the visibility of our existing elected representatives, too many of whom simply vanish into the town hall once elected, only to emerge three years later to seek another three-year mandate.
Unfortunately, unless something radical happens in this space to reinvigorate our local bodies and local democracy in general, the immortal words of Jim Hacker in Yes Prime Minister – although uttered about local government in the United Kingdom – are all too pertinent here:
“Only about 25 percent of the electorate vote in local elections. And all they do is treat it as a popularity poll on the political leaders [in central government]… Nobody knows who their local councillor is. And the councillors know nobody knows who they are. Or what they do. So, they spend [three] totally unaccountable years on a publicly-subsidised ego trip, handing out ratepayers’ hard-earned money…”
Many proponents of e-voting acknowledge there are security risks with such a system but say this is the purpose of a trial – to iron out those problems. While no voting system is perfectly secure – in-person voting, postal voting or online voting – online voting poses problems on a scale other voting systems do not.
We might never know there has been a hack, or it might only be discovered years after the fact. And there is the potential for interference to be widespread in a way that cheating in general, and local, elections almost certainly is not.
This is not idle speculation; there are well-documented examples of IT failure and fraud in the public and private sectors here and overseas, with attempts by foreign powers to interfere in electoral processes in a number of western countries.
The US National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine has been studying online voting since 2016 and in September this year released a report that rejected online voting and said paper ballots are the only secure system design.
A move to online voting risks distracting local government from the real elephants in the room, such as low engagement levels and complex ballot papers, all the while creating a new monster in the form of e-security weaknesses that risk undermining trust in the election process and results.
Online voting isn’t a silver bullet we can use to shoot the elephants in the room.
• Dr Andy Asquith is director, The Massey MPA; director, Public Management Group; (and Associate, Institute for Public Policy and Governance, UTS, Sydney); at the School of Management (PN), Massey University. A.Asquith@massey.ac.nz
• Dr Julienne Molineaux is the director of The Policy Observatory at Auckland University of Technology and editor of the Briefing Papers. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in the November 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.