Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: There's no easy panacea for voter apathy

Electronic balloting has been advanced as the magic cure to voter apathy. But Auckland City's chief electoral officer Dale Ofsoske has just returned from observing the latest round of British local elections with a rather different story.

Despite a smorgasbord of E-voting methods to choose from, ranging from text messaging to tapping your finger on a television-type screen in a kiosk, the 50,000 British voters participating in a voting trial were underwhelmed by the newfangled methods.

The big winner turned out to be postal voting, something we adopted way back in 1986.

In the 13 councils testing postal voting, turnout doubled to between 50 and 60 per cent compared with the previous election - a pattern that copied what happened in this country.

Mr Ofsoske is presenting a report on his findings to Parliament's justice and legislative select committee this Wednesday, but news reports on the internet suggest E-voting did not prove to be quite the panacea hoped for.

In Liverpool's Everton ward, for example, turnout rose from 15.8 per cent in the last local election to just 18.25 per cent this time.

However, another Liverpool ward saw turnout jump from 25 per cent to 36.45 per cent.

At St Albans District Council, in the two wards where E-voting was piloted, turnout was actually down by 1 per cent and 3 per cent. The only bright news was that, thanks to the electronics, one of the wards broke the record for the fastest declaration, issuing the results just four minutes after polls closed.

In Newham, East London, some voters were put off by the council's touch-screen technology, returning home rather than registering their choices electronically.

"There is a reason people all over the world put an X in the box: it's simple and it works. This is crackpot," one 80-year-old man told The Times.

Not that everyone in the trials seems to have been put off by the newfangled. While overall voting didn't rise much, as in the guinea-pig wards, E-voting did prove a popular option. In the Sopwell ward of St Albans, 35 per cent chose kiosk voting, 23.9 per cent used the internet, 17.6 per cent used the telephone and 23.3 per cent voted postally.

Funded by the British Government, the experiment involved 50,000 electors and ended up costing an eye-watering $464 for each vote cast.

To Mr Ofsoske the lesson is that if we choose to go down the E-trail, we should offer electronic voting as one of a variety of ways of casting one's vote.

"If it's easier to vote on the internet then do so, if it's easier to pick up the phone then do that instead," he says.

Text messaging was popular, which suggests - though polling statistics don't record the age of a voter - a take-up by younger voters, a group notoriously uninterested in recent years in participating in the democratic process, both here and overseas.

However phone-voting might not be such a good option in Auckland, says Mr Ofsoske. In Britain you are usually just selecting one candidate for your ward. Here we have to vote for more than one councillor, community board representatives, a mayor and regional politicians - which could be rather a handful to input with your thumb on a cellphone.

Mr Ofsoske doesn't see E-voting being a part of of the 2004 local elections, but he reckons that by 2007 internet voting could be a possibility.

With just over 40 per cent of Auckland City's eligible voters bothering to express an opinion at last year's election and less than 40 per cent of North Shore, Manukau and Waitakere voters joining in, the democratic system certainly needs any help going.

The last time it got a kick-start was in 1986, with the introduction of postal voting. This followed the 1983 election, when just 30.4 per cent of Auckland City's voters had bothered to front up to the polling station. Similar lethargy had been displayed across the region.

In 1986, thanks to the reintroduction of the ward system and postal voting, turnout in Auckland City nearly doubled to 59.8 per cent. Since then the trend has been slowly downhill again.

Of course the Australians have a solution that long predates both the computer and the cellphone, and that's compulsory voting.

They adopted it for Parliamentary elections after a 1922 turnout of 57.9 per cent was seen as unacceptable. Since then, turnout has averaged 95 per cent.

In local government elections the rules, and turnouts, vary. In Queensland and New South Wales, compulsion encourages turnouts of between 85 per cent and 95 per cent. In South Australia where voting is voluntary, it's a different story - in 1995, just 17 per cent bothered to vote.

As I've risked saying before, compulsory voting seems the cheap and obvious way of ensuring a full participatory democracy. But given our antipathy for things Australian, it's an unlikely prospect.

Which leaves us with E-voting.

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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