When worlds collide: casting the vote for e-voting

No sooner had local body elections passed than Aucklanders were dealing with a political scandal over mayor Len Brown’s extramarital affair. While that’s currently grabbing headlines, there’s an important issue that’s arguably more enduring. That’s because it could increase voter participation and make online and real world engagement connect in a meaningful way.

Those saying e-voting will not affect voter turnout are wrong. Introducing e-voting in New Zealand for central and local government will not only make more voters turn out, it will open up opportunities for more digitally savvy candidates and their online followers.

It will also help increase the level of engagement as online and ‘real world’ communities collide and connections between the two become more meaningful.

If you’re going online to vote, chances are you’ll spend a bit of time online before casting your vote, searching for candidates, checking on their background and researching issues that matter to you.

Reputation starts online these days and switched on candidates get this – US president Barack Obama’s most recent presidential campaign demonstrated this well and his campaign strategists leveraged digital communities and analytics exceptionally well. Reputations now cast long digital shadows.

Many people check me out online before meeting me. Online is where you can get a decent view of someone, their organisation, their friends, their past and their views. In future we’ll be able to decide politicians’ success or failure with a few hand gestures (perhaps not the ones you’re thinking of right now) and taps on a screen of your choice.

Many young Kiwis have tens of thousands of followers in their digital communities. There are Aucklanders who have big online followings who might to try and extend their online influence to the local community through representation on a local board or the council.

E-voting would make candidacy more attractive for these people and potentially help drive richer election and candidate information. Well, more than the bio you get in the mail. How you make any kind of decent decision based on those, who knows?

Most Kiwis see local body politics as largely irrelevant, so they decided not to bother participating in the recent local body elections. An abysmal 40 percent of eligible voters turned out in this month’s Auckland local body elections with a national average of just 43 percent.

Local body issues are relevant, so if there’s anything that can be done to increase participation beyond specialist interest groups, egotists, gravy train politicians and cronies, we should pursue it.

The rise of digital and social media has democratised information, let’s hope it can now help inform democracy. The introduction of e-voting should make it not just faster, quicker and cheaper to vote, but also increase participation rates and make better informed voters.

The opportunity to convince a raft of new generation, digitally savvy politicians and voters to participate through making government more relevant online can only be positive.

Love it or love to hate it, social media is here to stay, however it evolves. E-voting is one way we can include digital communities of very strip in decision making about issues that matter.

Security and privacy are paramount with any e-voting system but I think those issues are solvable. Norway has just undertaken its second round of electronic voting. While security concerns were raised, all the source code for the system underpinning the trial is being shared publicly.

According to the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development, the ministry responsible for running elections in Norway, e-voting participation increased significantly this year compared to 2011.

We will be e-voting, it’s just a matter of when. Next stop, referendums. Those wonderful, slow-moving, very expensive tools for getting the populace to decide on an issue. How much faster, cheaper and more decisive they could be if taken online?

Strahan Wallis is general manager of public relations company Porter Novelli.

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