Local government tipped to lead on electronic voting

Christchurch City Council electoral officer Max Robertson sees online voting as a distinct possibility for the next local body elections, a year earlier

Online voting could be implemented for local body elections in 2010, a year ahead of Parliamentary elections in 2011.

Chief electoral officer Robert Peden was reported as not discounting a trial of online voting in the 2011 general election, but he was noncommittal on that when contacted last week. The Electoral Office’s long-term strategy will not be settled until the end of the year, “and because it’s still under way, I can’t give details of that strategy or what might happen,” he says.

However, Christchurch City Council electoral officer Max Robertson sees online voting as a distinct possibility for the next local body elections, a year earlier.

“Our next elections are not until 2010, and my feeling is that electronic voting could become a legally permissible alternative by then,” he says.

Robertson is a member of the electoral working party of the Society of Local Government Managers (Solgm).

“There is quite a lot of work going on at national and local level on e-voting,” he says, “but [as at today] there are still a number of security concerns.”

He sent Computerworld a copy of a 2005 story from UK daily newspaper The Independent, where ministers in that country’s Labour government gave their reasons for not inviting councils to conduct e-voting trials in the 2006 local body elections.

UK constitutional affairs minister Harriet Harman and her Opposition counterpart, Oliver Heald, said in 2005 that potential security vulnerabilities made it unwise to introduce e-voting for the 2006 elections.

This decision reflects the current state of thinking in New Zealand, Robertson says.

Asked whether thinking and technology might have progressed far enough in the intervening two years to make online voting safer, especially in light of the NZ State Services Commission’s evolving electronic authentication system, he says “everybody associated with the electoral process in New Zealand is well aware of those developments” and the feeling is still against introducing e-voting in the short term; but it could well be possible by 2010, given further developments in security and identity management.

Robertson cites another report, this time from the US, saying computer scientists at Princeton University demonstrated last year that voting records even from the Diebold electronic terminals in public polling booths could be intercepted and altered.

With home voting, local commentators have previously said, the further danger exists that a vote is not secret and may be cast under coercion from another member of the voter’s household. UK Opposition spokesman Heald alluded to fraud already shown to have been committed with postal voting, which is permitted in local elections both here and in the UK.

The disappointing voter turnout for New Zealand local body elections earlier this month has lent new emphasis to campaigns for e-voting, Robertson acknowledges, but this may be a false hope.

In 2003, he says, he went with the Auckland electoral officer to the UK, where they looked at electronic voting trials held in Liverpool and Sheffield.

“The availability of e-voting did not affect the turnout.”

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