Overseas trials suggest Auckland’s low turnout is unlikely to be solved by the high-risk option of digital ballots

Mayor Len Brown wants the Government to rethink its ban on Auckland taking part in the online voting trial at the 2016 local body elections. Auckland has been excluded at this stage because, with 1,050,000 electors, the bureaucrats are worried about their ability "to mitigate any risk".

Auckland Council sees online voting as part of its campaign to lift voter turnout to "at least" the 2013 national average of around 40 per cent at next year's poll. In 2013, only 34 per cent of enrolled Auckland voters bothered.

The people who worry about such things reckon this is pretty awful. A neglect of our democrat duty that our ancestors fought overseas to protect. Long-time Manukau City mayor Sir Barry Curtis used to put a different spin on it. Challenged to explain the 35 per cent turnout in his city in 2007, he talked it up as proof his people were obviously happy with the politicians they had. The more disinterested might suggest a more likely explanation for dwindling turnouts is that an increasing majority of us don't have a clue who most of the candidates are, or what they represent, so don't see the point.

Candidates hide behind meaningless labels such as "independent" or "citizens". They go out of the way to dissociate themselves from the labels people actually know and relate to, such as National or Labour or Green.


The system doesn't help, either. In the new Super City, we have a presidential mayor who sets the agenda, and 20 unorganised councillors who remain below the public horizon with little to do but go with the flow, or sulk. At least with a parliamentary system, most voters can grasp which side their MP is on, and what the parties stand for.

With Auckland Council, even those of us paid to keep an eye on proceedings are often left confused.

Pinning one's hopes on online voting suddenly lighting up this morass seems far-fetched.

In the aftermath of the 2013 low turnout, Local Government Minister Chris Tremain announced plans to fast-track trials of online voting. Last December, the Cabinet agreed to a limited number of local authorities trialling it in 2016. But not Auckland.

Their fears about risk seem well placed.

Last November, an Australian federal parliament inquiry into electronic voting options rejected the idea. Chairman and MP Tony Smith said that after hearing from a range of experts and surveying the international electoral landscape, "it is clear to me that Australia is not in a position to introduce any large scale system of electronic voting in the near future without catastrophically compromising our electoral integrity".

Online voting was "highly vulnerable to hacking ... the academic experts swear they can, and have proved they can, hack such systems". This week there was proof of that. Two computer scientists from the Universities of Melbourne and Michigan revealed "a major security hole" allowing a hacker "to read and manipulate votes" in New South Wales' "iVote system" being used in this weekend's state election. It's an online system available to out-of-state voters, and certain disabled groups, expected to handle up to 250,000 votes.

The NSW electoral commission closed the site for several hours to "patch" this back door, but the experts Vanessa Teague and Alex Halderman warn it remains vulnerable.


In 2010, Michigan-based Professor Halderman took up an all-comers challenge from the developers of the Washington DC's trial online voting system to try to break into its "impregnable" system.

Within 48 hours, Halderman was inside, had reversed all the votes cast, and left a recording of his university's fight song as a calling card. It took election officials two days to realise things were amiss. Their plans for online voting were abandoned. So was a $28 million voting system for overseas United States military personnel which was also found to be vulnerable to cyber-attack.

The Australian report noted that the majority of online voting and electronic voting machine trials examined both locally and overseas "have chosen to abandon the technology over concerns about the security and sanctity of the ballot".

If the rest of the world has failed, is it smart to put our money on the Department of Internal Affairs coming up trumps. Especially as there's no proof it will improve voter turnout. The simplest way to achieve that would be to offer those who vote a discount on their next rates bill.