Online Voting possible as voter turnout declines

Dr Karen Webster

Dr Karen Webster

Voter turnout in New Zealand’s Local Government elections has been declining nationally since 1992. This followed a peak of 52.8% at the 1989 introduction of postal voting. Turnout reached a low of 42% in 2013 and then stabilised at 43% in 2016.

Auckland does better

Auckland voter turnout increased to 51% from interest generated around the 2010 amalgamation of Auckland councils. It has fallen since, to 35% in 2013 and 38% in 2016.  The latter figure compares with 79% voter turnout nationwide in last year’s general election.

The results of an LGNZ (Local Government) Survey following the 2016 election have shown that the main reasons people give for not voting are (a) not knowing enough about the candidates – 31% (b) forgot or left too late – 24% (c) not interested – 14% (d)too busy – 14%.

Better than Australia

New Zealand’s local body voter turnout is lower than a number of OECD countries with similar forms of government, including Ireland, Denmark and Norway. But New Zealand’s turnout is higher than in Australia, England and Canada.  

Interestingly, the declining turnout is quite varied across New Zealand. 

Much healthier turnout levels are achieved in smaller districts which have lower representation ratios, compared to those with higher ratios.  This suggests that the nature of our democracy impacts people’s engagement with local government.

Turnout enhancement.

Electronic alternative

A proposal is being developed to trial online voting for several volunteer councils, during the 2019 local authority elections. 

There is optimism that once online voting garners confidence, it will complement other voter turnout improvement efforts.

However, evidence to date also suggests that online voting may not be a panacea for improved voter turnout, as had been hoped.

Raising awareness

LGNZ President Dave Cull said that to improve voter turnout, the first step is to raise public awareness of the value of local government and the role it plays in the everyday lives of New Zealanders. 

He suggested that creating a larger pool of skilled candidates is another key step to improving local democracy. This would ensure that the value that local government delivers to its communities, remains high.  

A significant number of citizens interested in the process don’t vote. Others want to vote but say it’s too hard to find the information they need to make an informed decision.

“Addressing these factors is essential to improving voter turnout”, Mr Cull said.

The Experiment

Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) is working with an online voting working group and several local authorities, to trial online voting as part of the 2019 local authority elections.

In October this year, the Local Government Online Voting Pilot Working Party released a tender for a hosted online voting system that is to be at least as secure as current postal voting. The working party is also promoting “The Local Electoral Matters Bill” – now before Parliament to enable the trial. It includes changes to the legal framework governing local body elections.

The purpose of the trial is to (a) future-proof voting as the postal service declines and becomes costlier (b) support younger generations’ increased expectations for online services (c) renew interest in democratic process (d) enhance accessibility, especially to assist those with a disability in voting (e) ease and convenience to all potentially increase turnout.

Benefits of Online Voting

Auckland Council Democracy Services General Manager and Online Voting Pilot Working Party Spokesperson Marguerite Delbet said that Online voting will not only make voting more convenient for voters, but also improve accessibility to local elections for those who can’t vote independently, or who are overseas during the election and are unable to vote at all.

“With one of the largest postal-mail volumes-decline rates in the world, the New Zealand postal service is becoming more expensive and less efficient. Online voting will enable ease of access, more convenience and an alternative method in the face of a declining postal system in New Zealand,” she said.

Polling Booth not practical

“Voting at a polling booth is not a practical solution, as local elections have a much larger array of options and votes to consider than other elections.  For example, in Waitakere in 2016 there were 21 different positions with 78 candidates.”

Mr Cull said, “Online voting may increase turnout, but we don’t anticipate a complete sea-change. What we do believe is that online voting will enable ease of access, more convenience and an alternative method in the face of a declining postal system in New Zealand.”

The Controversy

The Project is controversial. Expectations about the impact on voter turnout are a point of contention. Also, serious concerns are being raised about system security and the imperative for citizens to have confidence in the integrity of the process.

As New Zealand’s Maxim Institute observes, Online Voting will not necessarily improve turnout as clearly demonstrated by experience both here and abroad. Stats NZ attempted its first online Census earlier this year, resulting in “the lowest participation nationally for the past five surveys.”

Ms Delbert acknowledged that people have reservations about voting online – just as people were sceptical about internet banking or paying online via credit card when these options first become available. 

However, from Survey results, the Working Party also knows that plenty of people want to vote online and hope that giving voters greater convenience and accessibility will mean more people can be actively involved in choosing the people who represent them.

Dr Karen Webster is a Member of Transparency International New Zealand (TINZ) withdelegated authority responsible for local government. Theabove article is from December 2018 issue ‘Transparency Times’ of TransparencyInternational New Zealand.

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