How technology can increase voter participation

concept of online vote

By Mark Matijevic

Increasingly, New Zealanders expect to be able to do everything online – from paying bills, to shopping, to communicating with friends, to voting in elections. But up until recently, the high cost of implementing an online voting system has prevented decision makers, both in Australasia and globally, from providing this service to constituents.

This year the New Zealand Government has announced it will trial online voting at the 2016 Local Government elections. The minister of Local Government announced a working party, with membership across government, local authorities, and with technology experts. They will consider the options, costs and security issues involved in online voting.

This trial was commissioned in order to increase voter participation in the local government elections, which in 2010 was below 50 percent. Even though this result is poor, it is substantially better than the Australian participation rate of 40 percent. However according to LGNZ, voter participation in the 18 to 29 age group is just 34 percent. The assumption is that allowing the public to vote online will improve participation, especially for younger voters who expect to be able to do everything from their laptops or even mobile phones.

Figures released by the World Internet Project NZ show 92 percent of New Zealanders have broadband internet access which they use and pay for, so there is an obvious appetite to consume services online.

Online voting is relatively new throughout the democratic world but is gaining momentum with the United Kingdom, Canada, Estonia, France, and Switzerland leading the way. There are another ten countries at various stages of trialling this type of technology.
Online voting can provide many benefits for democratic elections including convenience, privacy, security, transparency, and simplicity. It will also enable results to be available quickly and to be auditable.

In Estonia where internet voting has been available for a number of election cycles, online voting has increased steadily from two percent of all votes in 2005 to 24.3 percent in 2011. As a result, ongoing costs to the public have been reduced due to the lower staff numbers required to administer and police the electoral process. There are also less materials required as voters don’t need a physical piece of paper and pencil, so online voting is better for the environment. Fuel costs are also decreased as voters don’t need to leave their homes.

However, the reason it has taken so long for online voting to become available is due to two major perceived constraints.

1. Ensuring that the voter is authenticated and is indeed a valid voter
2. Ensuring that the voter only votes once

These constraints may seem simple to overcome, but have been significant barriers due to technology limitations in the past. However the high cost of the infrastructure has always been the most significant barrier.

There will still be some technology costs required to roll out this initiative but substantial costs can be avoided by utilising the RealMe® platform which offers online authentication as well as real-time identity and address verification at passport strength, and is already being used by a large (and growing) number of New Zealand Government agencies and companies.

Online voting follows the trend of councils providing services online including payments, consents, applications, and submissions. These services are set to expand over the next couple of years as the public demand more access to these services, with many councils adopting online solutions including our own Datacom Connect.

It is likely that central governments will follow suit with many similar services, including online elections, once it has been proven in the smaller but more innovative Local Government market.

Mark Matijevic is Datacom’s General Manager of Operations for Local Government Solutions.

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