Better the ballot box we know
When online banking was first introduced, my Dad was sceptical. He worried there would be problems with security, access, and usability. His suspicion didn’t last long though, and he quickly learnt to appreciate the convenience.
Local Government NZ want to bring this kind of online convenience to local elections to help bolster dwindling voter turnout figures, announcing a trial of online voting systems in next year’s local elections. But despite their good intentions, the reality of going online is not only unlikely to improve turnout but also opens up the serious risk of undermining trust in our democratic process.
Voter turnout for local body elections is consistently and disappointingly low. In the 2016 local elections, for example, 42 percent of eligible voters took part, compared with 79.01 percent in last year’s general election.
Bringing elections into the twenty-first century could help remove barriers to voting
Online voting won’t necessarily fix this, as demonstrated in precedent-setting examples both here and abroad. Stats NZ attempted its first online Census earlier this year, resulting in “the lowest participation nationally for the past five surveys.” Overseas, voter turnout in the 2003 trial of online voting in the UK had mixed results: voter turnout increased by 20 percent in one election while it dropped by two percent in another. A report from the BBC claimed online voting “failed to make much of an impact.”
Despite this, bringing elections into the twenty-first century could help remove barriers to voting, for people with vision impairments, for example. But while making it easier for all New Zealanders to participate in the democratic process is critical, accessibility isn’t the real problem. The evidence suggests that disengagement, not accessibility, primarily determines voter turnout. Going online won’t change this.
And it’s dangerous to our democracy. Following the announcement of the New Zealand trial, IT experts objected, claiming that online voting systems are at much greater risk of abuse from hackers, malware, and manipulation – abuse that is incredibly difficult to rectify. If these vulnerabilities were attacked, the public trust in the legitimacy of the election, that we know our vote truly counts, would suffer. Levels of trust impacts voter turnout, “distrusting citizens are less motivated to cast a vote.”
“You can’t “refund” a vote and “vote statements” can’t be provided to check your vote was correctly recorded as that would enable vote selling and coercion.”
Unlike online banking, the legitimacy of our democracy is at stake, and once it’s breached we can’t turn back the clock. As Jason Kitcat, developer of an online voting system explains, “online banking suffers problems but refunds are possible after checking your bank statement…you can’t “refund” a vote and “vote statements” can’t be provided to check your vote was correctly recorded as that would enable vote selling and coercion.”
Dad was right to embrace online banking, but we should remain suspicious here. If the trade-off for introducing online voting is between a questionable improvement in turnout versus a serious risk to trust in our democracy, trust should win. The ballot box and pen and paper may be inconvenient, but at least we can trust it. Local governments should instead think of other ways to improve engagement between elections.