This is an election year for local government, and central Government is increasingly worried about participation in voting. Participation was 79 per cent in the national election, while in local body voting only 42 per cent of eligible voters cast their vote — understandably an issue.
What is less clear is whether the Government is aware of the part it is playing in this process, by making it harder for people to have their say in the democratic process.
On one hand, local government has a voting system that is reliant on the postal service for people to cast their votes. In places like Auckland, running the operational machinery of the election is also getting increasingly complex, with a large number of wards, candidates and voters, making booth voting impractical.
However, the postal system is in serious decline. The falling number of post offices and boxes is plain for all to see, and NZ Post recently revealed a 12 per cent drop in volume between 2017 and 2018, which it expects to halve again over the next four years.
The reason for this decline is technology. Like myself, I imagine you sent only a handful of letters for non-work related matters last year, largely due to the prevalence of email and other digital forms of communication.
If an ordinary letter arrives a couple of days late, it doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things, but when thousands of people have to post their votes within a tight timeframe, and it doesn't get there to be counted, that has serious implications.
This is a problem central and local government have seen coming for a long time, and one that a group of councils, led by Auckland, have sought to fix with an online voting trial.
But while the central Government has paved the way with legislation to allow the trial to take place, it has not provided any financial support to a countrywide system that underpins our local democracy. As a result, the councils which sought to run an online voting trial — including Auckland, Gisborne District, Hamilton City, Palmerston North City and Tauranga City — have had to try to fund it off their own balance sheets, which has ultimately proven to be too expensive.
This results in our current predicament, with a voting system dependent on faltering postal infrastructure. And although we know what the solution to the problem is, the likelihood of putting it in place is almost non-existent without the support of central Government.
While I acknowledge that fixing this problem is not a silver bullet solution to local democratic participation, making it harder for people to have a say in how their community is run is surely only going to make the problem worse.
For projects like this, where there is a national benefit, financial support from the Government is clearly warranted. And it's not as if it won't benefit. Central Government stands to gain from the further development of online voting and the local body election trial because it will contribute to any future use of the system at a national level.
However, local government isn't abandoning all the hard work we've put into the online voting project. We've learned a lot by getting to the tendering stage, and balancing the competing constraints around security, identity, and keeping the democratic process safe in a digital environment, and we think we can strike the right balance.
We will be maintaining the case for an online voting trial, but what we really need is for central Government to truly partner with us in a more meaningful way. After all, an engaged voting public at the local government level is vital to ensuring a strong democracy, whether it is at a local or national level.
Dave Cull is president of Local Government New Zealand.