Even when online voting doesn't look as ridiculous as this, it's still no panacea.

Online voting as the big fix for low turnout is not a brainwave, it’s a brainfart

The commentary around local election turnout is littered with misunderstanding. Yes, there’s a problem, but we should regard any suggestion of a single, simple solution with deep suspicion, writes local elections expert Julienne Molineaux

The Spinoff local election coverage is made possible thanks to The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.

When you have an online voting hammer, every turnout issue looks like a nail.

There’s a naive view that policy proceeds in a rational manner: a problem is detected (somehow) and then various potential solutions are investigated and the best one is selected. In reality, solutions and problems often exist independently of each other, and the best solution doesn’t always get adopted. The push for online voting to solve local government election turnout problems exemplifies this.

For those who want online voting, any suggestion of turnout problems results in a call to introduce voting over the internet. They do not need to analyse the problem in detail because they have a ready answer.

Warwick Lampp, director of a private elections firm that makes its money from organising elections, including for some local councils, has been quoted as saying turnout in the 2019 local elections was likely to be at an “all-time low” and that “online voting was critical to halt that decline”. While Lampp undoubtedly has expertise in the logistics of organising elections, he also has a commercial conflict of interest when pushing particular voting solutions. He is not a disinterested observer and his comments do not demonstrate awareness of the research on voter behaviour.

Auckland Council’s Marguerite Delbet has led the charge for online voting. She, too, was quick last week to claim interim low turnout figures were an “obvious” sign that “postal voting has had its day” and, “I think this election has shown it’s the end of postal voting.”

Even the prime minister joined in.

Despite early returns being low, turnout didn’t crash. Overall it was up slightly on 2016, despite the drag low turnout Auckland had on the average. Turnout in 2016, in turn, was slightly higher than 2013.

The average turnout figure masks much variation. Turnout can rise when there is an exciting contest, or pressing local issues at stake. Research on previous elections shows turnout tends to be higher for territorial authorities with smaller populations and where there are a greater number of elected representative per capita. This held true for 2019 where turnout was low in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington, which have large populations and low representation levels.

Jean Drage has written about the turnout problem in Christchurch, saying, “many councils have become too big and too distant from our everyday lives and … local councils don’t do enough to promote local elections.”

Does Auckland’s low turnout have something to do with the size, scale and operation of local government there?

The unitary Auckland Council has brought big and much-needed benefits to Auckland in the form of integrated planning and infrastructure development, and speaking with one voice when dealing with central government. But we need to ask if this has been at the expense of democracy.

In Auckland the highest turnouts were (once again) in the Aotea-Great Barrier and Waiheke Island local board areas, at 63.5% and 52.0% respectively. The Hauraki Gulf islands are obvious communities of interest, have small populations, and high levels of per capita local representation. People are more likely to know each other, the incumbents and challengers, and the issues. Unsurprisingly, they are more likely to vote.

Is local government in Auckland too big and too corporate to be really “local”? The further away voters live from the centre the lower they rate or trust the council. Voters on the periphery feel neglected and invisible.

Perhaps, too, Auckland Council could sort out its Get Out the Vote campaign. Why go for a Bunnings colour scheme when the Electoral Commission orange is instantly recognisable as the colour of elections? A bright colour that screams Look At Me! is the right colour to get people’s attention, not a solid green. Better follow-through was needed across different parts of the council – libraries were designated as places with ballot boxes, but there was no or very little in the way of signs outside or even inside libraries about this opportunity to drop your papers off. Some librarians did not know what was happening, and in some cases, gave out incorrect information. The online “find your nearest post box” generator did not communicate its results in a user-friendly way – one of my results said “Massey/Te Manawa”. It took me a while to realise this was a reference to a new library at Westgate. If communications can only be understood by those in the know, then they are missing their target. Auckland Council incorrectly told people they needed photo ID to cast a special vote. Oh, and one-stop shops ran out of ballot papers, too.

I’d like to see the expertise and resources of the Electoral Commission used to run local elections.

Online voting is a solution. Low turnout is a problem. Postal voting is not working for many people. But to assume online voting is the solution to these problems means ignoring the inequity of digital access that exists across New Zealand. It ignores the intractable security issues of online systems, which may serve to undermine confidence in election results, leading to greater public disengagement with institutional politics. It ignores the issues of engagement and information – if people don’t care about local government or don’t know enough about the candidates, it doesn’t matter whether the ballot is on paper or a screen, they won’t vote. Solving local government election problems will not be easy and that is why we need to question the claims of anyone suggesting there is a single, simple solution which we must urgently implement.

Read more of Julienne Molineaux’s analysis of the problems and solutions of online voting here.

The Spinoff local election coverage is made possible thanks to The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.

The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.