Mai Chen: Voter apathy is a serious issue

The focus should be on New Zealand's lowest vote for the local elections - only 40 per cent voted. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The focus should be on New Zealand's lowest vote for the local elections - only 40 per cent voted. Photo / Brett Phibbs

"Fifty shades of Mayor Brown" may have won the most attention from the recent local government election, but the focus should be on New Zealand's lowest vote for the local elections - only 40 per cent of electors bothered to mail in their votes.

Local Government Minister Chris Tremain said he would instruct a working party to explore how online voting could be introduced for the 2016 local government elections, expanding his earlier intention to merely trial online voting in that poll.

But online voting may not solve the problem of low turnout, even if the technical feasibility of the system can be assured. Ultimately, as Mr Tremain also said, whether online voting is a good idea and whether it will solve low voter turnout are two different questions.

It seems unlikely that 60 per cent of New Zealand voters didn't bother to vote purely because they couldn't do so online. Undoubtedly there is work to be done to improve the public's view of local government elections.

John Banks' resignation on Wednesday after he was ordered to stand trial for breaching the Local Electoral Act will not have helped.

We need to be sure of what the real problem is before we reach for the newest and quickest technological fix.

Who voted and who didn't? Are those who chose to forgo their democratic right to vote old or young or in the middle? Where do they live and what is their profile in income, ethnicity, education and employment? How much did they know about the elections, the candidates, and the issues, and did they care?

Other electoral process issues, such as whether the STV voting system is too confusing or whether the voting timeframe is too long or too short, may well be considered when Parliament's justice and electoral committee conducts its review of local elections.

On the other hand, it may be that younger people would be more comfortable voting online - since they probably manage every other aspect of their interaction with government from student loans to tax to KiwiSaver through their computer or tablet.

And with each electoral cycle this generation grows in size, and will demand that voting for a mayor be as straightforward as voting for their favourite on New Zealand's NZ's Got Talent.

Given the chequered history of government IT systems, it is important not to have a repeat of Novopay. The consequences of an online voting system malfunction during local body elections would be nightmarish. Although the right to vote in local body elections is not directly affirmed in the Bill of Rights Act 1990 (that gives only the right to vote in parliamentary elections), we place a high value on our democracy and we need to have full confidence in a ballot box that exists only in cyberspace.

Nobody wants to risk a "Novo-vote", so it is comforting to hear Mr Tremain saying a precondition for the widespread introduction of online voting for the 2016 local body elections is a significant trial beforehand to iron out any bugs.

Some of the infrastructure required for online voting is already in place, or will be soon. The Government RealMe service enables every citizen to have a verified online identity for all dealings with the Government. The Electoral Amendment Bill will amend the Electoral Act 1993 to allow people to enrol and to update their enrolment details online.

And the drafters of the Local Electoral Act 2001 had the foresight to lay the groundwork for online voting, although the march of time and technology means that new Local Electoral Regulations and possibly legislative amendment would be required to fully implement online voting.

We would not be the first country to try online voting - Mr Tremain's paper to the Cabinet on the issue notes online voting has been trialled or introduced in New South Wales, Canada, Estonia, Norway and Switzerland.

And many of us will already be familiar with casting online votes from voting in university, producer board, iwi, energy trust and farming elections.

The real question is whether, in light of the potential cost and risk of introducing online voting, it will materially affect the quality of New Zealand's local democracy.

And it must be ensured that it does not stop other initiatives to make voting relevant to ratepayers.

Mai Chen is a partner in Chen Palmer and an adjunct professor at the University of Auckland Business School

- NZ Herald

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