Much has been made of the proposal to use local body elections to trial e-voting in 2016.
Just this week, Dunedin City Council became the latest local authority to vote not to participate in the experiment.
Its withdrawal has reduced the original pool of 13 councils interested in the trial to just eight. The small remaining number has raised questions over the financial viability of the experiment, with calls for the Department of Internal Affairs to finance the project, rather than the local councils themselves.
The decision by Dunedin Council to withdraw was based around three main themes - cost (put at $165,000 on top of the price of running a 'standard' postal vote election), security and access.
Whatever online solution is used, there are remaining fears that security cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, the recent scandal involving Ashley Madison highlights such risks and, internationally, there are a number of countries where e-voting has been banned because of such fears.
The hearing that led to the Dunedin withdrawal from the trial included the fact that, in some areas of the city, less than 30 per cent of voters have internet access. That means by moving towards e-voting, we may be effectively disenfranchising a significant number of citizens. Given the increasing levels of both disaffection and disengagement from traditional civic institutions, such a move would only serve to further exacerbate already worrying trends.
But all these issues - whatever their validity - miss the point. The reason put forward for introducing e-voting has been to arrest the decline in participation in local body elections. Yet, there is little evidence to show this will be achieved.
E-voting advocates often cite the use of such a system in the recent New South Wales state election in Australia, which was deemed to be successful in terms of voter turnout. But this argument overlooks the fact that in federal and state elections in Australia, voting is compulsory. In New Zealand we are required to register to vote, but not actually participate. This is a huge difference - voting in Australia is seen as an everyday civic responsibility, not an optional extra.
Proponents of postal voting elections used the same arguments as many advocates for e-voting - if we make it easier, then more people will participate. The same argument is being bandied about again by the e-voting brigade who argue that it provides an opportunity to connect with young voters.
Here we get to the crux of the matter - in order to get young voters to engage, young voters must know what exactly they are engaging with. Put simply, they have no idea. This situation is admirably summed up by the fictional politician Jim Hacker from the television series Yes, Prime Minister.
"Only about 25 per cent of the electorate vote in local elections. And all they do is treat it as a popularity poll on the political leaders [in central government]... Nobody knows who their local councillor is. And the councillors know nobody knows who they are. Or what they do. So they spend four totally unaccountable years on a publicly-subsidised ego trip, handing out ratepayers hard-earned money..."
Here, two things need to happen. Councillors must be much more visible - they need to escape the shackles of the Town Hall. The important role of local government, which has more impact upon our daily lives than any other level or institution of the state, needs to be reinforced.
This is about education not propaganda. Central government in Wellington needs to step up and take the lead in partnership with Local Government New Zealand. If we take Auckland as an example, it would be a great help if government ministers tried to be constructive about the role of Auckland Council, instead of trying to knock it at every available opportunity to score cheap political points.
If this doesn't happen, irrespective of how many fancy voting systems we have, the turnout will be in terminal decline. Then we risk moving from local government to local administration. The e-world much loved by e-voting advocates has an important role to play here.
Clearly traditional methods of getting political messages across no longer have the same impact - social media is the new 6pm news. The Scottish independence referendum last year showed that when young people are engaged they participate in record numbers. That is the key task we face.
A sombre note here is the Local Government Commission produced research back in 2010 that showed first-time voters who do not participate in either of the first two elections for which they are eligible, will never vote. This piece of information has been singularly ignored by our political masters - at both national and local level. Unless they act now, we are witnessing the slow death of civil society - and all the benefits that accompany it that we currently take for granted.
Perhaps what is needed is a more Luddite approach. Let's do away with the technology and at least experiment with a return to a more traditional form of voting in local elections - the use of a ballot box. At the very least this will eliminate the two main obstacles cited for e-voting - it'll be cheap and secure!
Dr Andy Asquith is a local government specialist with Massey University's School of Management.