Call to revisit online voting in wake of low voter turnout

By Nicki Harper

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Napier City councillor Maxine Boag
Napier City councillor Maxine Boag

In Hawke's Bay voter turnout in this year's local body elections was above the national average, but the low turnout nationally, 39.5 per cent, has led to calls for the Government to take action.

The final tally will be available later this week, but as of yesterday the average turnout for the Hastings, CHB, Napier, Wairoa and Tararua councils was 54 per cent, that number bolstered by the particularly high number of returns in Wairoa (63 per cent) and Central Hawke's Bay (62 per cent).

As of yesterday, Napier recorded the lowest vote returns of 44 per cent.

Labour's local government spokeswoman, Meka Whaitiri, said the Government needed to get serious and come up with a plan to increase voter turnout.

"With an overall turnout of only 39.5 per cent continuing the long decline in voter turnout at our local elections, the time has come for some meaningful action," she said.

"The local government sector was let down this year when the Government failed to adequately support the online voting trial - what we are doing now clearly isn't working and an action plan to lift voter turnout for 2019 must be put in place."

Massey University associate professor and local government specialist Christine Cheyne said the system needed a comprehensive review to reverse the downward trend that was occurring at both a local government and national level.

"Every three years there's a select committee inquiry where they come up with recommendations, which have quite often been ignored by central Government."

She said there was activity around local body elections at the start of the year when eight councils from across the country, both large and small, volunteered to be part of an online voting trial.

"It was not well resourced, the approach was to leave it to the councils themselves to fund the trial, and then in April it was cancelled."

She said an online working party set up by central Government was also not as high-powered as it needed to be, even though some valuable information came from it when it reported back in August last year.

"This needs to be looked at in the context of how elections are administered across the board.

"We need to get that trial back on track, but three years is a long time to wait - we need to try and get it going again at the earliest opportunity."

She said the technology was evolving rapidly and several countries were experimenting with online voting including in Australia. New South Wales with its state elections had provided the online option for people who lived more than 20km from a polling booth, or who were out of the state at the time of the election, or had issues using the post or getting to a polling both.

"With E-Government we are being pushed to interact more online, and there are options to connect with voters electronically who could be given a connection for voting."

The Electoral Commission should be a lot more involved, she added.

"We have a campaign to get people registered, but we do not have a nationally co-ordinated campaign around voting. It's in the national interest to have a good turnout."

This sentiment was echoed by returning Napier councillor Maxine Boag, who was vocal about poor voter turnout in the lead-up to this year's elections.

She noted there had been issues with people not receiving voting papers, particularly if they did not have a stable address.

"There needs to be a lot more work done getting people on the electoral role, and to get people voting, maybe a mix of postal and online.

"If there was some kind of app you would be more likely to engage younger people."

She also felt there needed to be more work done around attracting a wider range of candidates to run for office, to better reflect the diversity of people in the community.

Associate Local Government Minister Louise Upston said that in 1989the average turnout was 57 per cent for mayoral contests and 56 per cent for council elections.
"By 2013 it was 41 per cent and 42 per cent. This is not a new issue, 2016 is similar to 2013," Ms Upston said.

"At this stage international evidence suggests that online voting may not lead to an increase in turnout," she said.

"Jurisdictions that have trialled or implemented it have found no increase, a small increase, or even a small decrease in voter turnout. The impact on turnout could not be attributed solely to online voting.

"This Government is open to initiatives to assist local government in increasing voter turnout and this includes online voting. However we also have a responsibility to ensure the integrity of the elections, and take this role very seriously."

- Hawkes Bay Today

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