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Source: Massey University

The president of Local Government NZ wants to introduce e-voting, but will it really lead to higher voter turnout?

By Dr Andrew Cardow and Dr Andy Asquith

We were a tad concerned to read the recently-published views of Dave Cull, the mayor of Dunedin and the president of Local Government New Zealand – the collective voice of our local authorities. He outlined the concerted attempts to introduce e-voting into local body elections – but proponents of e-voting conveniently overlook two other important ‘E’s – engagement and evidence

The argument often used, and repeated by Mayor Cull, is that the postal system is broken and online voting is the simple cure-all solution. However, not a shred of credible evidence is used to support the arguments that e-voting can compensate for the continuing decline of the postal voting system in terms of increasing voter turnout. 

It is well known that there is a low turnout in New Zealand for local elections, especially amongst ‘youth’ voters. This coincides, naturally enough, with a general lack of interest in local government brought about in part by a lack of engagement by local politicians. We can hear the wails as councillors’ huff and puff about their meeting attendances and how recognised they are in the community. We also hear the snorts of derision from the officers who work hard providing community outreach and ‘democracy services’. The problem here, though, is this: they are only really talking to themselves and the very small part of the community that is constantly engaged. The ‘chattering classes’ – such as us and those of you who are bothered enough to read this.  

Put simply, our elected councillors have low profiles amongst the wider community. One of us recently heard (yet again) a councillor state that low levels of engagement and participation was a direct result of general citizen satisfaction with both councillor and council performance. This misleading and evidence-free view can only lead to the further decline of our local democracy here in New Zealand as councillors and the institutions they serve on slowly decay and become superfluous. 

Dr Andy Asquith and Dr Andrew Cardow.

What we need is political engagement

Into this mix strides the solution of e-voting, which is hailed as the panacea to encourage turnout amongst both young people and the disenfranchised. E-voting is said to be easier than postal and physical voting so will appeal to youth and those under 50 who are too busy to fill in a voting form or turn up at a polling booth. This is simply not true. The reason people don’t vote in local elections is because they don’t see the relevance to them. Until people are aware of the role, scope and scale of our local bodies, and the multiple, important roles they play in our daily lives, they will never engage and vote, irrespective of the means and mechanisms we put in place.  

We have seen ‘evidence’ from Canada quoted as being illustrative of the benefits of e-voting. However, if you read the Canadian research, two things are striking. Those who take up e-voting are the 50-somethings, a group already inclined to vote, and that younger people prefer to vote via the ballot box, or the traditional way. However, none of this research addresses the engagement question.  

There was no discernible increase in participation. The only way to increase participation is to increase engagement. By this we mean political engagement. It is recognised that the officers provide a great deal of social engagement opportunities but, so far, such efforts have not resulted in higher voting turnouts. Just making it easier to vote will not increase the vote. 

Political engagement needs to happen first. By this we mean councillors need to make themselves visible, not just at the end of every election cycle or at local board or council meetings. Local government politicians need to ensure they are interacting with their public – us, the voters – and show they are relevant. Perhaps they could run ‘clinics’, much like their central government colleagues.  

Given that democracy is about politics and political debate, can we boldly suggest that our local politicians wrestle control of the debate around engagement, e-voting and the future of local democracy back? Otherwise we run the risk of our local democratic institutions becoming effectively local administrative institutions free from politics and debate. One thing is for sure, we need to reinvigorate our local democratic institutions because people will not vote if they see no reason to. E-voting or not.  

Dr Andrew Cardow is a lecturer with Massey University’s School of Management and Dr Andy Asquith is the programme director for Massey Business School’s Master of Public Administration.

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