A vote in favour

Local body elections are being held this year, using the traditional paper ballot. Can electronic voting ever replace it? What are the risks of voting online and can they be overcome? Stephen Bell gauges the political pulse.

Local body elections are being held this year, using the traditional paper ballot. Can electronic voting ever replace it? What are the risks of voting online and can they be overcome? Does the web offer politicians and voters anything extra in terms of candidates spreading the message and connecting with the people? Stephen Bell gauges the political pulse.

Current local body elections might have provided a useful testbed for internet voting, promised us in the 2005 parliamentary vote, were it not for one thing – the law has not yet made accommodation for it.

“The Local Electoral Act 2001 doesn’t allow it,” says Steve Kilpatrick, of the local arm of e-voting specialist Election.com.

Waitakere District Council returning officer Lyndall Pedersen clarifies: there’s nothing in the act that specifically bars direct electronic voting – it’s just not provided for. The act does not set out regulations to cover online voting, only postal and booth voting. Any council who set up such a system would be “acting ultra vires” (that is, outside its powers), she says.

Kilpatrick adds that the act has been written “in a modular way”, to allow for future insertion of regulations and processes for voting via the internet.

Waitekere has not formally considered online voting as a future option, Pedersen says, “though there have been some informal chats on the subject”. Like many other councils and incorporated societies, Waitekere believes online voting would result in greater participation. “When we moved from booth to postal voting the participation rate went up from 25% to about 50%.”

A recent survey among households in the area showed many more than half of them have their own PC with an internet connection, or had access to one, she says.

The council is looking at facilities for online procurement of its own supplies and letting citizens download forms for local government transactions – as well as an online database of cemetery plots -- “so it is appropriate to start working towards internet voting. But for us it’s probably about two years away,” she says.

In this month’s local body elections, Waitakere is using bulk scanners for the first time to translate its paper postal votes quickly into electronic form. In previous elections it has scanned votes with a handheld “wand”. Scanning is more accurate and saves labour, with bulk scanning even more effective in the latter respect, Pedersen says.

The forms are scanned twice and the results cross-checked to reduce the possibility of error.

One weakness of automatic scanning is that it lessens the opportunity to “interpret” a vote – where, for example, the tick in the box may be slightly awry, confusing the scanner, but the voter’s intention is evident to a human counter. But there is a preliminary manual check, where most such anomalous forms could be pulled out and subjected to personal examination.

Another problem often raised with internet voting from the home is the possibility of intimidation by one partner of the other, or of family, to vote the way the dominant partner wishes. But this risk is there with postal voting anyway, says Election.com’s Steve Kilpatrick; “internet voting doesn’t attmept to fix problems like that.”

Cheaper, easier, but safe?

If the law makes electronic voting possible during the next three-year term, Hutt City Council would be interested in using it three years from now, says returning officer Bruce Hodgins. It will be “a lot cheaper” to manage than a booth or postal voting process, he says, and it presents the opportunity to have, on the voting website, detailed profiles of the candidates and their policies. Some councils are sending such profiles out with postal voting forms. Like Pedersen, he believes it will encourage more people to vote.

The technology is there to provide adequate security for a vote, “but there is always a perception of risk”, he says. “Obviously there is an educational exercise to be done, and that may offset our cost savings in the first election [where online voting is allowed].”

Hodgins also raises the possibility of electronic voting booths in public places such as libraries and shopping centres. These would require less administration and labour-intensive security than manual booths.

Electronic voting “won’t get to be the sole means”, he says, at least not within three years. “But in the one after that it may happen.”

Starting next year, councils and voters will be making choice between the current “first past the post” voting system, and the single transferable vote (STV) system. If STV is chosen, the more complex vote counting involved may encourage the use of electronic means, and a plan to introduce electronic counting might in turn encourage thoughts of online voting.

The Canterbury Employers Chamber of Commerce is having its first online election this month, having changed its constitution last year to allow for the development. This year’s will be a pure internet election, with no manual voting facilities provided. A station will be set up in the chamber’s offices to allow voting at least by those close to the offices who do not have access to internet or email faciltities.

The move will enfranchise a large number of the chamber’s members who have not previously been able to cast a vote, says spokeswoman Tafflin Bradford-James. The chamber has nearly 3000 members, over an area which stretches from the Christchurch to the West Coast and Ashburton; there are even a few members in Nelson, Bradford James says, who prefer to belong to CECC rather than the Nelson Camber of Commerce. The voting has previously gone on in person at the AGM, which typically attracts an attendance of about 100. The chamber does not provide for proxy votes.

“Our only negative thought is that the fear of technology may deter some people from voting,” Bradford-James says.

As a background to the vote, members will be able to look at biographical and policy notes on the candidates on the website.

This year’s will not exactly be a hotly contested election; there are 13 positions for Chamber officials and only 14 candidates. But it does establish CECCas the first business support agency to hold a purely online election, says Bradford-James.

Another channel

While a number of councils and other bodies are hoping for an increased voter “turnout” online, Meat New Zealand has shown “it ain’t necessarily so”. The meat industry organisation, whose membership consists largely of farmers, used e-voting in March this year for remits to its AGM.

“We hoped it would increase the numbers voting, but it didn’t really,” says spokeswoman Andrula Dometakis.

Unlike the Canterbury exercise, this was internet voting superimposed on an existing postal system. “We saw it as just giving people another opportunity to vote,” says Dometakis. But internet voting seems to have been substituted for postal voting, not added to it. There were still roughly the same proportion – about 7% – of the 20,000 or so members voting, with about 25% of those taking the chance to do so via the internet.

The next voting exercise might dispense with postal voting altogether, and if that were done “it should save a huge cost administratively”, Dometakis says.

Thought is being given to allowing internet voting for the election of officials.

Auckland City Council would doubtless be a major potential influence on other councils if it decided to adopt e-voting; but the council is not currently well disposed to it.

At a recent conference of the International Association of Clerks, Recorders Election Officials and Treasurers, a task force from the state of California studying vendors’ and promoters’ current e-voting offerings found the process was not safe enough from interference, says ACC deputy returning officer Judith Oskovsky, a member of the association.

“You don’t know what sort of computers people have at home, and they might not be safe from hacking,” she says. The only way currently to ensure absolute safety is to have appropriately secured and approved computers in booths, attached to secure networks. This naturally removes what most advocates of electronic voting see as one of the biggest advantages – the elimination for voters of the inconvenience of travelling to a polling station.

But even where such secure systems have been provided, results in terms of increased turnout have not been impressive, Oskovsky says. This year, for example, the US military spent a large sum in providing electronic voting facilities to personnel posted overseas. They were pleased with the results, but the average turnout was still only about 10%.

You can’t guarantee that everyone who wants to vote is “computer capable,” she says, or that their PCs will work on the day.

“Talking to people who are really into computers, I find they can’t see these difficulties, or they dismiss them,” Oskovsky says. “But I think that when proposing to accept electronic votes, or even to count them electronically, you’ve got to be careful.”

Sidebars

Going online: the candidate view

Trust takes e-voting punt

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