Anthony Doesburg: Internet stuck with a vote of no confidence

By Anthony Doesburg

When the country goes to the polls on November 8, we'll be striking a blow for democracy. What we won't be doing is advancing the cause of e-democracy by voting electronically - there will be no e-voting option, not even experimentally.

According to the Chief Electoral Office's suggested timetable, the first trial of voting using the internet isn't likely until the 2014 general election. Further trials are recommended for at least the following two general elections before internet voting is made widely available in 2023 at the soonest.

Yet online voting is hardly new. More than 80,000 teachers voting in this year's Teachers Council elections can do so over the internet. And thousands of other New Zealanders have already cast an online ballot in one election or another.

Chief Electoral Officer Robert Peden is treading warily, saying in this column last year that general elections were too important to rush into e-voting. A draft strategy document released by his office this year has a long list of issues that need consideration.

Among them is security, both against hackers and to ensure voter authenticity - in other words, making sure e-voters are who they say they are.

Another is making the system as user-friendly as possible. Also of concern is ensuring that voters sitting at their home computer, out of the gaze of scrutineers, aren't coerced into making a choice.

Officials have already thought of a solution to that. Open the election to e-voters as long as a fortnight before the poll closes and, if they choose, let them override their internet votes with one cast the old-fashioned way on polling day.

Security needn't be a worry either, says Steve Kilpatrick, whose Christchurch company Electionnz.com has been running elections over the internet for the best part of a decade.

"We've been happily providing e-voting to private sector organisations for eight years now," Kilpatrick says. Electionnz.com also manages the elections for half the country's local authorities. The Teachers Council is using the company's services, as did Silver Fern Farms when seeking shareholder approval to sell half the company to PGG Wrightson.

Electionnz.com takes care of e-voter authenticity by mailing a password and PIN to eligible voters. Kilpatrick says that is no less secure than the postal ballots used to elect mayors, councillors and district health board members.

As government agencies gradually make more of their services available online, the State Services Commission is getting closer to implementing an identity verification service (IVS) that will be the equivalent of presenting a birth certificate or passport. A contract for creation of the IVS, called igovt, will be let "soon", a commission spokesman says, and $9 million has been budgeted for it over the next couple of years.

Kilpatrick sees no reason why the IVS couldn't work with his company's system to provide an internet voting option in a general election. "Our system would certainly scale up."

David Farrar, whose Kiwiblog is one of the country's oldest, says that in the midst of the e-voting security debate, people forget that proof of identity isn't required when we cast our vote at a polling booth.

Farrar, who chairs InternetNZ's public policy committee, runs a market research company and is an avowed National Party supporter, remembers discussing e-voting as long ago as 1996. He would like to see a trial earlier than the Chief Electoral Office is proposing, and reckons local elections would be a good proving ground.

One of e-voting's goals - aside from faster and more accurate vote counting and making elections cheaper - is reversing growing voter apathy. New Zealand voters turn out in pretty healthy numbers - 77 per cent cast a ballot in 2005 - but the trend is running downward.

Brian Whitworth, a Massey University senior lecturer whose research interest is the design of social-technical systems, says providing the process is simple, e-voting should increase electoral participation.

Just as we do our banking at ATMs, he envisages AVMs, or automated voting machines, appearing in communities where voting could take place on all manner of issues, local and national.

"You don't need to do it only every three or four years; you could do it much more frequently. So I'm seeing the whole thing as not just about voting, but as about feedback between the people and their representatives." Like Farrar, he suggests trying it out first in local elections.

"E-voting is the future," Whitworth says. "The internet is all about voting. If you go to a website, you're voting for it. E-voting for political reasons is just part of a bigger picture of e-voting on the internet."

Slow progress:

* Chief Electoral Office's suggested timetable for internet voting:
* First trial not likely until 2014 election.
* Further trials for at least the next two general elections.
* Internet voting widely available in 2023 at the earliest.

Anthony Doesburg is an Auckland technology journalist

- NZ Herald

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