Friday, June 29, 2012

Steve Baron: The time for internet voting has arrived

The internet has become intricately entwined in the lives of New Zealanders and has the potential to improve our democracy. A 2010 AUT study showed that as many as 83% of New Zealanders use the internet. While we can enroll to vote online and ballot papers can also be downloaded by New Zealand citizens while overseas, votes cannot be cast over the internet.

The Government, along with the Electoral Commission, appears to be dragging the chain in bringing New Zealand into line with other countries and states. New South Wales in Australia has internet voting as has Canada, France, Estonia and Switzerland.

As people see themselves more and more like customers of the government—rather than servants, it would be expected they are likely to want the ease of being able to vote from their homes, workplaces, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. There is also a growing need for people with disabilities to have better access to cast their vote. According to one study in 2007, 20% of US voters have been unable to vote because of their disabilities. Perhaps numbers are similar in New Zealand.

Given the apathy of New Zealand voters, internet voting could be considered one of the best options for attracting people to vote. This may be especially so for young people of voting age who have embraced the internet and social networking.

During the 2005 elections there were 20,931 individual downloads of New Zealand ballot papers by New Zealand electors in 150 countries—not a trivial number and having the ability to vote conveniently over the internet may very well increase this, especially since voter participation dropped to 73.83% in 2011, the lowest turnout since 1887. The figures are even worse for local body elections.

Other advantages are reduced election costs in the long term; providing multilingual ballots; error reduction and faster results. The cost does not need to be expensive either. New South Wales spent just over A$3.5 million to create their iVote system which was used in their 2011 State elections—not a huge amount in the grand scheme of things. 

While internet security is a concern for many, network authentication protocols like Kerberos and various others have now been developed. These provide authentication and strong cryptography. Other examples are extended validation or high assurance certificates. Encryption keys can also be held by several people who would all have to be present to access electronic votes to ensure the integrity of the internet voting system. It may also be likely that an added layer of security would be supplied outside of the internet environment, such as a special code to the registered voter’s mobile phone.

Making the internet voting source code available (open source) to the public also makes the whole system transparent and exposes any weaknesses in the system quickly—a real advantage during pilot schemes and trials. The New Zealand government has also taken steps to protect government agencies and critical infrastructure from cyber-borne threats by establishing the New Zealand National Cyber Security Centre, a part of the Government Communications Security Bureau. This organisation could play a critical role in bolstering security around an internet voting system.

 Despite the rocky start some poorly designed and poorly tested small scale internet voting systems around the world initially experienced, along with poorly designed and poorly tested electronic voting equipment that often gave anything but paper ballot voting a bad name, internet voting would now seem inevitable. While New Zealand is still yet to create a legal framework or official criteria for internet voting, the internet itself has become more and more embedded in New Zealand culture and the demand for internet voting as a democratic tool can only increase. What is now needed is either public pressure or the foresight of the political elite to embrace the concept and kick-start the process. 

Steve Baron is a political commentator. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science & Economics. He is a published author; a regular columnist in various publications throughout NZ; the Founder of Better Democracy NZ; a former businessman and Waipa Mayoral candidate. 

3 comments:

John Chant said...

I think Steve is on the right track. However I feel that it is high time we had one other option on the voting form.
In order to get a true understanding of voters' attitudes we should add another box marked "none of the above". This will enable us to indicate the true extent of disquiet we cannot currently express with both the candidates and the parties.

wjk said...

Three cheers for Steve!
Internet voting is definitely going to be the way the whole world votes in the future. Here’s the key reason: Convenience is Empowerment. Wherever there are polling places some distance from the home of the voter, inconvenience is going to reduce participation – especially for the elderly, sick or disabled voters. Voting convenience will also facilitate a more accurate reflection of public opinion. Voters with intense views are more likely to make the trek to the polls than are voters with more moderate views. That’s a major problem in the USA currently. Highly partisan candidates win, then they can’t cooperate with each other, so noting gets done.

The leading US official in favor of Internet voting is West Virginia Secretary of State, Natalie Tennant. See her recent statement at
http://www.govtech.com/e-government/Making-the-Case-for-Online-Voting.html

For an overview, see The Pathetic State of Internet Voting in the USA a
http://internetvotingforall.blogspot.com/2012/06/pathetic-state-of-internet-voting-in.html

Good luck getting your opinion accepted! And watch out for the Luddites!

William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.
Twitter: wjkno1
Author: Internet Voting Now!

jh said...

I think it's a great idea.
Parties who get into parliament tend to assume the right to interpret their voter mandate. In the interest of open government and honesty we should extend the process to asking about a whole lot of other things even those the public can't be trusted with such as immigration policy.