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Will online voting mean smarter choices?

In an era dominated by mobile devices, where everything from social interaction to banking can be done on the ‘net, it seems strange Kiwis can’t vote online.

Electronic voting globally has permeated various stages of the electoral process, from ballot setup to distribution, voting, collecting and counting ballots, and internet voting has been used for government elections and referenda in the UK, Estonia and Switzerland, along with elections in Canada and party primary decisions in the US and France.

The current lack of an online voting option is particularly an issue for non-voting digital natives who are used to everything being online, according to Kiwiblog author and member of the government’s working party on online voting, David Farrar. A recent Massey University survey suggested the same, with more students (75 per cent) saying they would vote in September’s general election if they could vote online than if given a one-off $50 payment (51 per cent).

Massey University student Sarah Gallagher believes a lot of students don’t care about elections enough to go to the effort of finding somewhere to vote on election day.

“The internet is such an integral part of our lives and so if we are at least slightly interested in voting, it would be so much quicker and easier if it could be done online.”

While slowly introducing an online voting option into local body elections, and possibly general elections in the long term, might not capture all non-voters, Farrar hopes it would increase voter turnout and make voting more informed.

“[The printed booklet asks] a lot of people to sit down and Google each [local body] candidate, so at the moment it’s a case of who writes the best 200 word blurb.

“If local elections go online voters could potentially link to candidate summaries and websites and so make more informed choices.”

Farrar sees online voting as the inevitable way to cope with a dying postal system. “I don’t know anyone who’s saying it should all be online right now, but people want the choice of whether they use a paper method or online method to return their vote to the returning officer.”

Farrar says a significant budget for software and large-scale testing would be needed, which prompts the question: who pays? Should it be the local council first, local bodies together or central government in some sort of partnership? “That’s where it’s gone wrong overseas. Some moves to online systems have failed because budgets weren’t large enough to cover all the testing that needs to be done.”

The other major obstacle to moving online, which saw a room divided at the recent NetHui, is whether problems with keeping the ballot secure are a great enough reason to not move towards an online system.

Innovation Partnership chair Murray Sherwin says people worry about the potential for the system to be hijacked, loss of anonymity and the capacity for influence.

“There are issues there that would need to be managed. The basic design would need to be as good as it can be and then improved from there to ensure the integrity of the process.

“There are no hard and fast rules at this stage. The objective is improved participation so it will come down to what works for most.”

Farrar suggests though there isn’t an absolutely foolproof way of having complete security, not being online isn’t totally secure either.

“There’s nothing to stop you going along your street and taking the voting slips from your neighbours’ mailboxes.

“And blind people, though admittedly a minor group, already feel quite vulnerable with voting, as they have to reveal their vote to someone.”

Farrar says influence is also already an issue, as in some households one person fills out or influences the voting slips of all constituents. Plus there can’t be invalid votes in an online system. Though a rare occurrence, missing ballot boxes can be detrimental to the democratic process.

With enough backing from councils, including in the major centres of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, and in Porirua, where the youngest mayor in the country, Nick Leggett, is pushing strongly for online voting to be introduced, Farrar says it should get off the ground.

Time will tell how successful it will be and how quickly it progresses – if a good system is developed Farrar says there is no reason “large online opinion polls” couldn’t replace central government referenda.

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