Local Government Magazine
Governance

Increasing accessibility at heart of online voting trial

By The Online Voting Working Party.

Nine New Zealand councils are looking to modernise and futureproof New Zealand’s local electoral system by trialling online voting in 2019, in addition to postal voting.

The nine councils involved in the project (Auckland Council, Gisborne District Council, Hamilton City Council, Marlborough District Council, Matamata-Piako District Council, Selwyn District Council, Palmerston North City Council, Tauranga City Council and Wellington City Council) all see potential for online voting to play a key part in New Zealand’s democratic processes.
“Online voting will not only make voting more convenient for voters, but improve accessibility to local elections for those who can’t vote independently, or who are overseas during the election,” says spokesperson for the project Marguerite Delbet, General Manager of Democracy Services at Auckland Council.
The nine councils have teamed up to develop a business case assessing the scope, risks and costs involved in running an online voting trial for the next local government elections. If the trial goes ahead, all voters registered with the participating councils would have the option to vote online in the October 2019 local elections (with the exception of Auckland Council, where the trial would be offered to a subset of roughly 10% of electors, with that subset still to be decided). 
A lot of background work has been done over the last five years, including reviewing the successes and failures of online voting overseas to apply lessons learnt to the trial here in New Zealand. The councils have also been working closely with the Department of Internal Affairs who are developing a set of regulations for the online voting trial, to ensure that strict security protocols are in place if a trial does proceed.
“We understand that security is people’s biggest concern about online voting, and it’s our biggest concern too,” says Marguerite. “No online system is ever 100% secure, but neither is the postal voting system, which is becoming more expensive, less reliable, and less time effective. The current voting period is three weeks, and we lose one week getting papers in the mail and another week getting them back.”
“Voting in-person at a booth is not a practical solution either, as local elections have a much larger array of options and votes to consider than other elections – in Waitakere in 2016 there were 21 different positions with 78 candidates.”
The councils are looking to invest in an online system with extremely high levels of assurance and will work with independent security experts to ensure stringent independent auditing, reviewing and verification processes. A tender for the provision of the online system was advertised during September. If the councils receive a proposal that stacks up, they would likely appoint a provider prior to Christmas. This will provide more information, including the likely costs, and allow the councils to make a final decision on whether or not to take part in the trial.
“There is a lot of interest from the tech community and we’re engaging with them, both online and through community forums in Wellington and Auckland. We’re building on the learnings of the last five years as well as those of other countries who have implemented online voting, including Australia and Canada.”
Once a provider is appointed, the trial councils will be working closely with them to ensure compliance with the regulations and hiring independent experts to identify any weaknesses or bugs that need to be addressed before the election.
“It’s critical that we protect our democratic interests, and we would not proceed with a trial if either central or local government is not confident that the system is secure enough.”
It’s also important to note that no one would be required to cast their vote online. Voters in the trial areas would still be posted voting papers, giving them the option to vote via post or online.
“We know plenty of people have reservations about voting online – just like people were sceptical about internet banking, or paying online via credit card when these options first become available,” says Marguerite. “However, we also know that plenty of people want to vote online – so we hope giving voters more convenience and accessibility will mean more people can be actively involved in choosing those who represent them.”


This article was first published in the LGNZ pages of NZ Local Government Magazine‘s November 2018 issue.

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