COMMENT:

Despite widespread concerns about foreign online hanky-panky in both the British Brexit voting and the recent US Midterm polls, Auckland Council and eight other local bodies are plugging on with plans to trial internet voting at next year's elections.

The other eight, which range from Wellington City to Matamata-Piako District Council, will offer the online option to all voters. But the Government says that's too risky for the huge Auckland electorate, home to a third of all New Zealand voters, and told Auckland Council to experiment with just a "subset" of voters.

The bureaucrats have nominated a subset that includes "people with a disability" and "overseas voters". Let's hope the latter option doesn't prove too tempting to all those Ivans and Ludmillas, fresh from their online mischief in the Florida polls.

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It's not surprising the Government is worried. Just over a month ago the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a long report declaring that "to protect the integrity and security of US elections, all local, state, and federal elections should be conducted using human-readable paper ballots by the 2020 presidential election".

It said that "assessments by the US intelligence community found that during the 2016 presidential election, America's election infrastructure was targeted by actors sponsored by the Russian Government who obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local election systems".

It warned against paper ballot papers even being returned via the internet or any network connected to it, because "no current technology can guarantee their secrecy, security and verifiability ... "

This was before the recent mid-term polls which had both the Russians and the Chinese being accused of election interference.

For those who say the Big Powers aren't interested in the local politics of Auckland or the Waikato dairy heartland, Christchurch Professor Anne-Marie Brady suggests otherwise. She points to the Chinese spreading their tentacles into New Zealand politics, with donations to political parties and the like.

An update on Auckland Council's proposed online voting trial is currently before local boards seeking feedback.

The bureaucrats argue that many younger potential voters, "have never posted a letter", and don't vote because of "not knowing where to find a post box". There's also the cost. Increased charges means postal voting will cost 60 per cent more in 2019 than in 2016.

The report says that if the brain-teasing hurdle of working out how to post a letter was removed for young voters, that alone would boost overall voter participation in Auckland from the 38.5 per cent of 2016 to 42.4 per cent. Even if that held true, it might be, at best, a dead cat bounce.

For years now the political establishment has agonised over the decline in local body voter turnout, and put it down to shortcomings in the mechanics.

People found it hard to go to the local hall and cast a vote on polling day so we got postal voting. But after a jump in turnout, the decline returned.

Auckland has seen one of the most marked declines. In 2010, turnout was 51 per cent. In 2013, it dropped to 34.9 per cent. In 2016, there was a surprising 3.7 per cent bounce back.

The politicians agree that the refusal of two-thirds of potential voters to participate is a bad look.

But in deciding the magic solution is online voting, they could be missing the message the non-voting majority are sending them. That local politics is no longer relevant to them.

This is particularly the case in Auckland where the centralised "presidential" super city power structure has effectively erased the "local" from the community politics of two-thirds of New Zealanders.

I'm a habitual voter. On OE in London, I voted in their elections and the New Zealand ones. The only time I've hesitated was before the 2013 Super City elections when Mayor Len Brown was a shoo-in and as I wrote at the time, the majority of candidates lurked behind "a babel of 62, mainly meaningless, labels".

In the end I succumbed to habit - and, I like to think, civic duty.

But I didn't blame the two-thirds who failed to vote. Their message was clear, and it had nothing to do with any shortcomings of the voting system.