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Does the vision extend to voting?


28 September 1999

Does the vision extend to voting?

The NZ Electronic Electoral Trial this evening welcomed the commitment of the Prime Minister and the Minister for Information Technology to "providing leadership in the opportunities [that] the Internet and other new technologies present". The pledge was made as the pair launched the "e-government vision statement" and the NZGO website.

NZEET Project Director Rex Widerstrom pointed out that New Zealanders can now enquire about their electoral enrolment online, and download the forms needed to enrol. They can use the NZGO site to search information on a variety of government and departmental activities. "So why can't they take the next logical step? Why can't they vote online in referenda and polls, and maybe in the forthcoming election?

"If touchtone phone technology is taken into account, then the vast majority of New Zealanders would be able to access a private or public telephone and dial an 0800 number, or access the Internet, and cast a vote in a referendum, a poll or an election.

"We're not talking about a new toy being used for the sake of novelty," Mr Widerstrom said. "Imagine if the cost of running a referendum came down to the cost of turning on the server and designing an informative web site. With a much lower cost, the justification for requiring a prohibitively high number of signatures to trigger such a poll is gone. Conversely, constituency MPs could, by restricting access only to those identifiers that were registered as resident in their electorate, be able to easily return to the people who elected them for instruction and guidance.

"And we're not talking about government by daily poll, either. E-voting is simply another tool in the democratic process. Several US states are moving toward it -- Washington state has passed a law establishing a formal inquiry to set the parameters; Florida is working on TCP/IP standards for digital voting; California is looking into digital signatures on petitions."

"There's nothing to stop New Zealand leading the world in running the first real trial of e-voting, even this year. Hundreds of New Zealanders signed up to participate with very little publicity having been give the project," Mr Widerstrom explained.

"Yet approaches to all the registered political parties met with little or no response, and endeavours to secure commercial funding for the trial are taking far longer than anticipated. Why is that? I suspect it is because those political and business interests who could readily implement such a project have realised that they stand to lose the comfortable hold on power they have enjoyed till now.

"As e-democracy advocates in the States are discovering, cheap and secure access to a powerful tool for democracy means people start discounting the excuses they've accepted up until now and demanding accountability. And they realise that if they don't get it, those same tools can be used to apply measures to enforce accountability more than once every three years, like recall.

"The rhetoric of this announcement sounds good, but it's hollow. Consulting with decision-makers by 2005? If Mrs Shipley wants to consult the public on whether they want e-voting now -- or indeed on any other issue -- we will give her all the time she wants in a moderated chat room on the NZEET site in the lead-up to November 27," Mr Widerstrom pledged. "And if the government agreed to support the Electoral Trial we could demonstrate to them that a great deal more is also possible, right now.

"And a party which pledged to make themselves accountable -- really accountable -- through e- referenda, e-polling and e-voting would surely win support from a great many New Zealanders right across the spectrum. The challenge to Mrs Shipley, Mr Williamson, and the decision-makers in the other parties is to do it, not half heartedly by 2005, but completely, right now.

"The writing is not on the wall for politicians who lack accountability. It's on a PC screen near you."


The NZ Electronic Electoral Trial was established as a joint project of the Communications Department at Victoria University, California's Campaign for Digital Democracy, and Wellington political consultancy firm Polemic. It aims to conduct a mock election, referendum and poll online as a demonstration of the technology and to spark voter interest in pushing for the use of e-voting in real politics.

Contact: Rex Widerstrom (025) 549-637

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