Company-X director David Hallett considers online voting in local elections.
Andrew King is the Hamilton City Council Mayor-elect, winning by a slim margin of nine votes over rival Paula Southgate. A formal recount of votes, of which there are over 33,000, has been requested by Southgate.
These votes represent about a 33 percent voter turnout, which is well down on previous elections. In 2010 and 2013, about 38 percent of enrolled Hamilton voters casted a vote.
It appears that exercising one’s democratic right in local body politics isn’t as compelling as it used to be.
Currently all local elections are held by postal vote, with voting papers posted to all voters who are enrolled about a month before voting starts. Interestingly, postal ballots were introduced in an effort to increase voter turnout from the ballot box. However, due to the reducing turnout it begs the question: has it failed? Perhaps postal voting is past its used by date.
The Otago Daily Times scathingly noted that “across the country, voting papers sit on kitchen tables collecting coffee stains and getting covered by power, telephone and credit card bills before being discovered after the election date and turfed unceremoniously into the rubbish bin.”
Dr Jacky Zvulun, who studied voter turnout and electoral participation in New Zealand for his doctorate, suggested a variety of influences behind the drop-off: busier 21st century lives, a lack of motivation through the print media, a voter base disconnected to the issues of the day, and even a public tiring of postal voting as a child tires of a new toy.
Responding to a series of requests, in September 2013 the Government established a working party to consider the feasibility of online voting in local elections. The Online Voting Working Party’s membership included representatives from across government, local authorities, and information technology experts.
During 2015, the Government released a set of requirements for a possible trial of online voting. The requirements were a guide for councils to decide if they want to trial online voting at the 2016 local authority elections. Eight councils requested to take part, and were invited to demonstrate they could meet requirements for an online voting trial.
However, on April 19, 2016, the associate minister of local government, Louise Upston, announced the Government’s decision not to enable a trial of online voting in the 2016 local authority elections, due to security issues. At the time, Upston said, “given real concerns about security and vote integrity, it is too early for a trial.”
Dave Lane is a Christchurch-based software developer, and a firm believer that online voting cannot be made secure enough to protect democracy. Mr Lane had involvement in the Department of Internal Affairs working group on online voting, and subsequently published his opinion online.
Lane wrote that he “was pleased with most of the recommendations they offered”, however he noted that only a few of the people involved were experienced technologists. “[I] got the impression that most of the others held an amazing faith in technologists: that there was no problem they couldn’t solve.”
According to Lane, “All Internet-accessible software has remotely exploitable security vulnerabilities. That we’re not aware of an exploit to an online voting system offers no certainty that it is uncompromised.”
Perhaps a smart hacker will probe the system during a trial, find an exploit, and save it until a high-stakes election, and then use it subtly, just enough to alter the result to suit the highest bidder?
Lane doesn’t believe that online voting is worth the risk.
“One of the best things about paper ballots is that just about anyone in society can scrutinise the election. Online voting shifts scrutineering into the realm of highly specialised IT consultants,” wrote Lane. “Rather than online voting, our focus should be on a mixture of new and proven methods for improving voter engagement and participation. Most of those do not rely on technology.”
IT Professionals New Zealand chief executive Paul Matthews, served on the government’s Online Voting Working Group that laid the groundwork for the online voting pilot.
Mr Matthews favoured a pilot for local body elections, where it was relatively easy to make a case for online voting being as secure or more secure than postal voting. He was, however, more cautious about online voting’s potential to replace a physical ballot box at a general election.
Bruce Schneier, one of the world’s most respected online security experts, characterised online voting this way, “Building a secure Internet-based voting system is a very hard problem, harder than all the other computer security problems we’ve attempted and failed at. I believe that the risks to democracy are too great to attempt it.”
The local government sector has been invited to consider whether it wishes to work towards a trial in future local elections.