OPINION: Democracy - sorry but there is no app for that
If only, cries half of Twitter, we could have voted online, local body election turnout would have been far higher than the record lows recently reached.
Why, asks the Facebooking classes, can’t voting for a mayor be as easy as voting for a contestant on the X Factor?
Just make it easier to vote, grizzle the talkback callers, and we would have.
Rubbish, rubbish and rubbish.
There’s no doubt at all that low voter turnout in last weekend’s local body and DHB elections shows there is a problem to be fixed. But I have enormous doubts that simply switching to an online system or supplementing postal voting with electronic will do that.
There is a danger – and by this I mean both a danger to democracy and a danger that we will waste public money – of rushing to the electronic solution without really understanding what’s happening here. People vote when they understand the issues and the candidates, when there’s a close contest and when they believe their vote will make a difference.
The Electoral Commission looked at this in detail in their post mortem of the 2011 general election. Low trust in politicians, one-sided electoral races and a general lack of interest in politics were the main factors in choosing not to vote and there’s no reason to suspect local body elections would be any different.
Process and technology didn’t rate as major barriers and chief electoral officer Robert Peden indicated at the time that overseas trials showed online voting had not improved turnout.
It’s easy to see, though, why the idea of electronic voting has the support it does. For the voter (well, the woulda-shoulda-coulda-voter) it’s a convenient excuse. “Of course I would have voted online! Definitely!” It’s also far easier to live with than accepting they don’t care enough about their communities to have a say every three years in who runs them. And for local bodies (or central government) building a website is a far more tangible and tickable box than, well, motivating the electorate.
In the less discussed but more relevant of the two local government stories to break this week, Local Government Minister Chris Tremain said he is forming a working party to investigate electronic voting for the next local body elections (see Printout above). To his credit, he adds that online voting will not on its own solve low voter turnout but I believe that leading with a tech solution carries the real risk of sidelining the fundamental problem.
It’s no more difficult to vote in a local body election than in a general one, yet we do it at only about half the rate. Despite the monstrous obstacles of having just one day to vote, and – yes! – having to travel to an actual polling place, 74% of us voted at the last general election, compared to just 40% in the local ones.
So tinker with electronic voting, by all means. It makes sense (especially if we can make it sufficiently secure) and might even save us money. But don’t expect it to shift the turnout figures.
The process is not the problem.
An app is not the solution.
Vaughn Davis is principal at social media and advertising agency The Goat Farm. He has been involved in the creation of advertising campaigns promoting voter enrolment for several general elections but has no current relationship with the Electoral Commission.