Officials head to UK to assess e-voting

Election officials from Auckland and Christchurch head to the UK next month to check progress on electronic voting, which may arrive in New Zealand as soon as 2005. The British government is trialling voting by text message in Liverpool and Sheffield.

Election officials from Auckland and Christchurch head to the UK next month to check progress on electronic voting, which may arrive in New Zealand as soon as 2005.

The British government is trialling voting by text message in Liverpool and Sheffield in a bid to boost voter turnouts, especially among young people. And voters in parts of St Albans, just north of London, will be able to cast their votes via the internet, telephone or touchscreen kiosks.

In New Zealand, legislation governing local body elections was amended last year to allow for such voting methods. For a general election, however, new laws would have to be passed, though the matter is being reviewed in time for the scheduled 2005 poll.

Auckland and Christchurch city council electoral officers Dale Ofsoske and Max Robertson will observe Britain’s May 2 local government elections. Ofsoske, a member of the Society of Local Government Managers’ electoral working party, says the UK efforts are interesting.

“Let’s be there at the coalface and see what processes and solutions they have while we are there,” Ofsoske says. “We will have to assess the UK experience and see if it’s applicable to New Zealand.”

He says US concerns about the security of the internet for home-based voting remain, but controlled-access voting at libraries could be a way around that. Text message voting using passwords is also possible, but New Zealand ballot papers tend to be longer because there are usually more independent election candidates. As a result, text messaging here might too complicated. While one interested company told him last year that internet voting was still 10 or 12 years away, Ofsoske says new voting methods could be in place for local body elections in 2007.

Labour MP Tim Barnett, chairman of the Parliamentary Justice and Electoral Committee, says people can already enrol online and his committee was pushing for internet-based voting soon for overseas voters.

“For the 2005 election we are open to various ideas. There’s a creeping movement but not a revolution,” he says, adding that some councils are interested in online voting. Barnett cites the work of Election.com, a US-based organisation that has run ballots for the Hutt-Mana Energy Trust, the Auckland University of Technology and lobby group Meat NZ, using both paper and online voting methods.

Election.com New Zealand chief executive Steve Kilpatrick says his company will be involved in Britain’s local elections next month. Its UK arm is dealing with the e-voting part, while he and another Kiwi Election.com staffer will work on the paper-based voting side.

Kilpatrick says he will report to chief electoral officer David Henry and MP Tim Barnett about the UK experience.

“It’s certainly going to be interesting analysing the results we get out of the UK,” he says.

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