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Will electronic voting provide the answer to participation?

Sadly it looks as though we have dived into another low in voter turnout in our local elections with Wellington leading the way in the nose dive.

At this years local body elections our participation rate in the Wellington area was under 40%* (59,148 votes cast out of a possible 148,191 registered electors). And if you think 40% participation rate was bad, it was even worse in the Pukuhinau/Lambton Ward where participation barely reached 34%. This compares poorly to our parliamentary election conducted in 2017 where our participation rate was just over 78%.

There are now calls for electronic voting to be used in our next local body elections. This is seen by some as a way to not only stem the outgoing tide but to reverse it to some respectable level. While I am not diametrically opposed to electronic voting, I do not see this as the panacea proponents are hoping it might be.

I see there are three main obstacles to conducting electronic voting:

1. Security: There are many examples of where supposedly secure systems have been hacked and data stolen, examples include banking, governmental systems, defence, hospital and health organisations
2. Operational: Look at the debacle of undertaking the census online. There is also the risk of spam email being sent out containing a fake links to a alternative and identical voting sites
3. Anonymity: because of the need to verify somebody is who they say they are it is no longer a secret ballot. The anonymity of the voter is gone.

It is interesting to note that last year an Australian parliamentary enquiry found that the introduction of online voting would compromise it's electoral integrity in a catastrophic manner. Before making any decision we must be informed by the investigations and experiences of other authorities.

Leaving those three matters aside, I believe we should give more thought to returning back to the past and revisit the polling booth for local elections.

The question that everyone should be asking is why are the participation rates between local and parliamentary elections so different. Let's examine the differences:

Polling booths and ballot boxes
The first major difference we see is that parliamentary elections are by the ballot box where people physically visit a designated polling booth and cast their vote. By contrast, local body elections are by postal ballot.

Advanced voting and voter registration
Associated with the having a polling booth there is advance voting that starts a week prior to the actual election day. This allows people to not only physically cast their vote, but to both register and cast a vote at the same time. These voting locations are highly visible and at places where people work or pass by (libraries, hospitals, railway stations for example). At the local body elections you are able to vote up to three weeks prior to election day by postal ballot. However, if you are not on the Electoral Roll, you still have to go to a Council Office and register in order to receive voting papers.

Media interest
With parliamentary elections there is a build up of interest with the talk being that this is an election year. This interest is honed by the media with a great deal more interest in what parties are saying, doing and how they are building up for the election. By contrast the local body elections just sneak up on to people, unless of course there are issues that are of significant local interest. However, media interest is limited. during the local body election period is fleeting at best and concentrated upon mayoral contests, with scant attention paid to other candidates and what they stand for.

The focus on political parties
Perhaps the thing that makes it easy for the media to follow are the political parties. Because our political system at the parliamentary level is based upon the party system, it is much easier for the media to follow and report on elections. The key election messages and policies are announced by political leaders. By contrast most candidates at the local body elections are independent candidates wanting to do the best for their local communities. Thus, the job for the media becomes much harder. For example, how does the media report on the contest in the Wellington Constituency for the Greater Wellington Regional Council when there are 23 candidates vying for five seats? Even voters find it hard to make a considered and informed choice when voting.

Poorly funded
The resources given to running elections are vastly different. From the information I have been provided, $30 million is allocated to organise and run the parliamentary elections, while only $16 million is provided for local elections. This seems surprising, when you consider each is equally important for the maintenance of a vibrant democracy. We should not be running our elections on the cheap.

The voting system places a great reliance on the postal system, something that many people are increasingly losing faith in. It is highly likely that there is a growing number of people who have never posted a letter in their lives and post boxes and post shops are now further and further apart.

The postal ballot is a sure fire method to ensure the collapse of local democracy. We urgently need to act to change the means by which we cast our votes. If we do not change the voting system that little orange envelope will become further buried beneath the bills and advertising material that swamps our letter boxes in the following years.

* Local body participation rates for Wellington in 2016: 45.56%
Local body participation rates for Wellington in 2013: 41
Local body participation rates for Wellington in 2010: 39.54%

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