Going online: the candidate view

Unlike in countries such Britain, where local councillors are usually Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrats, candidates in New Zealand are independent, or run on non-party slates, which makes it harder for voters to work out who is who and where they stand.

Unlike in countries such Britain, where local councillors are usually Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrats, candidates in New Zealand are independent, or run on non-party slates, which makes it harder for voters to work out who is who and where they stand.

For instance, who is City Vision? What does Auckland Citizens and Ratepayers Now believe?

In Auckland City, the main mayoral candidates -- former National Party MPs Christine Fletcher and John Banks and Alliance party president Matt McCarten -- were already well-known to many from their Wellington careers.

But what these national figures stand for locally, and for those running for council and community boards, voters have to look further. First clues come from the forest of banners that appear in the weeks before the election, detailing website addresses as well as rah-rah slogans.

Thus we learn Matt McCarten wants to “fix Auckland’s transport problems”, “clean-up our beaches” and “declare Auckland a GE-free zone.” His site features his policies, pictures from the campaign trail, upcoming events, press releases, links to stories that ran in the media and contact details, not to mention the adverts the New Zealand Herald refused to run.

Sitting mayor Christine Fletcher offers simpler site. There is talk of inclusion and a list of “achievements” from her first term. Maps illustrate public transport policy proposals.

John Banks offers a detailed biography (he’s a mason and father-of-three). He supports the “Let’s get Auckland Moving” campaign and says “Auckland needs leadership”. His site links to his appearances in the press, plus the City of Snails public transport campaign.

A look at Auckland Now reveals that this party grouping merged with the right-leaning and well-established Citizens and Ratepayers to form Auckland Citizens and Ratepayers Now. They too want to “Get Auckland Moving” and keep the rates down. From their maps and related links it's possible to figure out that Compaq manager Craig Stokes is a candidate for one of Auckland's local community boards.

The City Vision website shows the left-leaning group wants to “Keep Auckland Ours”. It lists candidates, policies and a raft of related issues, including links to Auckland City Council, Auckland Regional Council and the Labour and Alliance parties.

On the trail

How effective are websites in campaigning?

Both Fletcher, who launched her site two weeks ago, and McCarten are enthusiastic about the potential of e-voting and believe the web will eventually be an important tool in democracy. Fletcher says local government elections traditionally have a low voter turnout and she is keen to boost interest, particularly from apathetic younger people.

Fletcher also sees a role for more online polls, saying they could help solve the conundrum of people wanting better transport without higher rates.

Campaigns, she says, face strict spending limits and websites are more cost-effective than traditional leaflets. They should also boost creativity and attract people’s interest in the key issues. Websites allow more detailed information so voters can be better informed, she says. “Use websites to probe the issues, the person, to get to the heart of the thing."

McCarten says his internet has “exceeded” his expectations and suggests we have only just scratched the surface of its potential. Aucklanders are sophisticated voters, he says, with about 60% of homes having computers, and he believes the web will become increasingly important in election campaigns.

He says his site, erected in three days, has received more than 3000 hits in two weeks, showing people want more information. By listing his policies, it also saves voters from contacting his staff and cuts down on the amount of paper produced. Political movements should put resources into websites, he says, or they will lose out. His site also gives him “a second chance” to get across messages ignored by other media, he says.

As Alliance party president, McCarten wants to see video on the organisation's website for the 2002 New Zealand general election, more polls and questionnaires to make it more interactive and other political information. Email campaigns are another possibility, which were used by the British Labour Party in the UK’s June 2001 general election.

“I think the potential of emails is massive; they can go to thousands,” he says.

McCarten is unsure whether the web will win him more votes, but believes it's an excellent communication tool, and e-voting is just the next step from postal voting when all the checks and balances are in place, he says. "Computer technology needs to be applied to the whole range of local and central government services and this needs to happen sooner rather than later."

Somewhat more sceptical, Auckland Citizens and Ratepayers Now president John Collinge says the impact of the web has yet to be assessed. “It’s a question of having to have it. The negatives of not having it are significant. It will make you look that you are not up to date,” says the former National Party president.

The CRN website shows information not available on traditional campaign material, plus other city news. But despite placing the website address on election material, he says hit numbers are "disappointing".

Collinge speaks more favourably about email campaigns, saying CRN candidates are using them. “It’s a good way of getting your friends and supporters to know that you are a candidate,” he says.

As to e-voting he was unsure of the technicle implications, particularly of knowing that the person sending the email or using the web, was who they claimed to be.

National Party successor Michelle Boag is more positive about online democracy. "The web and email is going to be a critical part of an integrated communication campaign and is no longer an add-on strategy."

Boag used them both in her campaign for the National Party presidency, but she says she will leave the online voting issue to the experts, instead focusing on building up her party’s support. The National Party has an “extensive database” of “thousands” of email dresses of members and it might be used in an election campaign, she says.

She too is tight-lipped over what might happen to the National Party website next year, but Boag says video “is easily done”.

Are we ready for it?

South Korea staged a general election in April this year and grassroots civic groups used the web to name and shame politicians they deemed unfit to hold public office. This may have hastened the break up of the ruling coalition government.

In France, despite trials, security fears mean just 4% of its senators and deputies support online ballots, reports The Industry Standard Europe. However, it reports Estonia, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands are preparing for official online elections by 2003.

After last year’s election chaos concerning "chads", members of the US Congress are also looking at online voting methods. EDS and Identix have created a system called Itrust which uses real fingerprints to verify voter identity, allowing online voting from home, overseas, anywhere. But critics say online systems still have potential security breakdowns and this one would need a national database of fingerprints to work.

The British general election in June saw an estimated $3.5 million-plus spent by the main political parties on election websites and “related material”. Other sites encouraged tactical voting, usually to defeat sitting Tory MPs. Examples included www.votedorset.net from singer Billy Bragg and www.tacticalvoter.net.

However, though Britain’s Electoral Commission says only a tiny percentage of voters used websites, emails and mobile phone text messages to access information, the web will force a review of election law. Internet-prompted tactical voting “could well have influenced" the defeat of two sitting MPs, says the commission, as the number of online pledges exceeded the size of the previous majority.

The commission found “understandable reluctance” to use unsolicited messages and indeed in the US last year, Democrats reportedly sent out ‘Vote Bush’ messages to annoy people. But Labour sent out 24,000 text messages to people who registered their details on the party website.

Efforts by cause irritation to parties by creating bogus party websites had little impact as voters were “wary of party sites”, says the commission, preferring news media sites. A Mori poll for the commission says only 7% accessed election information online, with only 1% using the web as their main source.

The report concludes: “There would seem to suggest that while the internet and email are increasingly used as tool for conducting business and communication, they have yet to become a primary source of news and information about political issues, even among those who use the internet.”

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