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Will voting online solve our low voter-turnout problems?

9/10/2019

Auckland's local body elections turnout is tracking to be significantly lower than last year. In fact, in many regions around the country this is the case. Arguments have been made, particularly after the last local body election in Aucland, that voting should happen online as a matter of convenience. However, Dr Julienne Molineaux, Director of The Policy Observatory, says this is not the only issue we are contending with when it comes to voter engagement. Dr. Molineaux believes voting in local elections is far too complex, with too many options and too few clear opinions for voters, thus, online voting won't do much.

Producer Jack Marshall spoke with Dr. Molineaux on Wednesday to find out more.

You can find the full interview here and the written transcript below. What follows is a write up from Bronwyn Wilde.

 

Online voting won’t solve disengagement

With voter turnout for the recent local body elections projected to reach an all-time low, the conversation has once again turned to online voting to improve participation. The steady decline in the use of the postal system has seen the likes of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern  voicing support for the adoption of online voting for 2020.  However, Dr Julienne Molineaux from the Auckland University of Technology tells 95bFM how a mere switch from paper to a screen won’t fix the underlying problem of political disengagement. 

Turnout for local body elections has always been lower than for Parliamentary elections, a phenomenon Dr. Molineaux attributes partly to the complexity of the voting system. While general elections require only two votes, for local body elections some places in Auckland will have as many as five fields to fill in, “You've got different instructions for every single field [and] you've got a list of people to vote for that you've quite possibly never heard of before.”

That leads into the greater issue of the lack of political branding. Dr. Molineaux notes most voters wouldn’t have heard of many of the names on the ballot, “You don’t know what their values are. You don't know what they stand for. Because a lot of people in local government stand as independents and that doesn't tell us anything useful as voters.”

Mayor Phil Goff notes that after the 2016 elections, 74% of Aucklanders said they would prefer to vote online. However, Dr. Molineaux agrees that while it may improve convenience for those already predisposed to vote, “what it doesn't do is solve the really deep turnout issues … If people are disconnected from their local authorities, just transferring the ballot from a piece of paper to a screen doesn't do anything to make it easier for them to vote.” she says. 

When it comes to solutions, Dr. Molineaux instead believes the focus for local authorities is to reconnect with their communities -  and not just at election time. “Democracy is about the entire three years.”  

She goes on to add that civics in schools as well as lowering the voting age would build good voting habits while youth were still at school. “Students could then be told about how to update their details, about why we vote, why it's important to be on the roll and things like that.”

Nine councils were set to trial online voting for this year’s elections but called off plans due to the projected costs of $4.2 million.

 

ORIGINAL TRANSCRIPT

Jack Marshall: What is the problem with local elections? 

Dr. Julienne Molineaux: Two things here; firstly turnout in local elections has always been much, much lower than in our parliamentary elections so this is not new. The concern is that turnout is falling, and if you continue that trajectory we’re going to get to the point where very few people are voting at all and the elected local authorities really won’t be able to claim that they’ve got a mandate from voters to do the things that they do. So I think that’s where the concern is. If we compare a parliamentary election to a local election they are actually really different. A parliamentary election - for people who don’t follow politics closely - is actually quite easy to participate in. Mostly, you’ve got two questions to answer: “What party do I give my party vote to” and “Which candidate do I want as my local MP?”. Those are the only decisions you have to make. And at a minimum, you can break that down to one decision which is just the party vote and you give your candidate vote to the candidate from the party you've given your party vote to. So if you are busy living your life in between elections, not paying attention to the ins and outs of daily politics, you can still make a pretty good and informed decision come election time. Because we have political party branding, most people know which parties are closer to them in terms of their values and which ones are further away. Most people have a sense of “Do they want the current government to continue? or would they like a change?” And so it's quite an easy task to vote in a parliamentary election. Local elections, on the other hand, are really, really hard. You have to be quite committed to complete that ballot. Some places in Auckland are going to have five different fields they have to fill in (if they've got a licencing trust).  You've got different instructions for every single field, you've got a list of people to vote for that you've quite possibly never heard of before (until the billboards went up). You have no idea how the incumbents are performing and you don’t know what their values are.  You don't know what they stand for. Because a lot of people in local government stand as independents and that doesn't tell us anything useful as voters. So if you don't follow local government politics, the ins and outs of it, throughout the whole 3 years it's actually a really really really difficult tasks to complete that ballot, and it's no wonder that a lot of people give up

I have to agree with you completely. I study politics full time at Auckland University and I was looking at the voting sheet and I've never heard of these people or the things they stand for and I do this full-time! So for anyone else that's not particularly interested, it's just got to be absolutely confusing. You mentioned that oversees that has been trials of this online voting. What are some of the pitfalls or, what can we learn from the expansions overseas? 

So online voting overseas tends to be done below the parliamentary level elections. There's only one country that has online voting for their parliamentary election and that's Estonia. Every other country has decided that the security risks or the benefits of online voting just don't warrant introducing it for their parliamentary or presidential election. So it's used at a sub-national level: provincial elections, regional elections, state elections, municipal elections, things like that. One of the lessons that comes from that is that sometimes you do get a slight bump in your turnout when you introduce online voting. Because online voting makes it more convenient to vote so long as you're already motivated to vote - so it's a convenience factor. But what it doesn't do is solve the really deep turnout issues. If people are disconnected from their local authorities, just transferring the ballot from a piece of paper to a screen doesn't do anything to make it easier for them to vote. And so the message from overseas is that it doesn't solve turnout problems. It's much more about convenience for existing voters.

I think you touched on an important point there, where it's not just the fact that you can vote online but I was wondering whether if we have more information online as well as access out there, that might work to improve the voter turnout?

Well the set up we have at the moment is really fragmented. So each local authority organises its own elections and organises its own promotion.  And then you get all these other groups like Generation Zero and The Spinoff with Policy NZ putting out voter guides as well. So your information is in lots of different places and I think that if we could streamline things so that people had to do a bit less searching around to get the answers they're looking for, that would absolutely be a bonus.

So what are some of your solutions you’d like to put forward for actually improving voter turnout?

I think a lot of the problem has to be seated back to the local authorities themselves and the elected representatives and the candidates.  You know, candidates who stand by saying “I'm the anti-politician politician” or “vote for me to keep rates down” and label themselves as independent, aren't really presenting a vision of the future that people can believe in. And I think we need candidates who are upfront about their values and what they're doing. We need to be more excited by our candidates. I think that would help.

I think local authorities need to reconnect with their communities and not just at election time. Democracy is about the entire 3 years.  

As we've lost a lot of local media we need to think of new ways of connecting people to what’s actually happening in their councils and ensuring that people can follow what's happening should they wish to. I’d also like to see civics being a requirement in schools and if we could lower the voting age to the point where most people were still at school when they first became eligible to vote, we could enrol people while they were at school. Students could then be told about how to update their details, about why we vote, why it's important to be on the roll and things like that. I think that as our turnout is falling, more and more young people are growing up in households where voting in local elections not the norm.  So where did they learn about local government? And where do they get the help to actually do the basic things like get on the roll and figure out what to do if their voting papers don't turn up. 


 

Photo credit: World of Weird Things