New Zealand council chiefs were being briefed this week on the impact of electronic voting.
Auckland and Christchurch city council electoral officers Dale Ofsoske and Max Robertson returned home last week after observing this month’s UK local government elections, in which e-voting and postal voting were trialled for the first time.
The pair were present during the May 7 elections in Liverpool and Sheffield, which staged some of the 30 trials across the country that had the extra aim of boosting voter turnouts. In Sheffield the electorate could vote through the internet, text messaging and smartcard kiosks in supermarkets. UK media reports say postal voting helped increase the turnout in three wards by between 4% and 9.5%.
Ofsoske says in one more prosperous council ward of Sheffield new e-voting methods were used by a third of voters, compared to about a sixth in a poorer part of the city.
In parts of Liverpool, internet and telephone polling was used by four out of 10 voters. People were still given the option to vote at traditional polling booths — naturally the present favourite method — and via postal ballots. Paper-based votes cast in Liverpool were counted using a new barcode system. Text messaging appeared the least popular form of voting in the city. In one area he studied, Ofsoske says only 631 out of more than 4400 voters in the richer Sheffield ward voted by cellphone.
Elsewhere, in Sheffield and in Newham in east London, some voters used smartcards containing a hidden password at electronic kiosks.
Britain’s Electoral Commission says it helped speed up the count, to just 20 minutes in some areas. There were no reports of electoral fraud, lack of secrecy or sabotage from hackers.
Auckland City Council will hear Ofsoske’s report and final recommendations on Wednesday.
For him, the big winner in the UK trial was postal voting, a method used in New Zealand for 20 years to boost voter turnout. E-voting was mainly about improving services to voters, he says, but was costly. The UK government had provided $4 million to fund the trials, included $500,000 and $600,000 to Sheffield and Liverpool.
Ofsoske won’t say whether he recommends using the new systems for the 2004 or 2007 local body elections, but says legislation is in place that allows them.
Steve Kilpatrick of election management company Election.com New Zealand also went to the UK to oversee the elections for his UK-based sister company.
Britain’s Electoral Commission is to conduct a series of opinion polls to gauge the value, helpfulness and ease of the pilot voting schemes. It is set to publish its report in July.