NZ’s online voting plans scuttled

Published on the 20/12/2018 | Written by Jonathan Cotton

Auckland elections remain postal

Turns out online voting is a harder proposition than it may at first appear…

Another year, another delay in New Zealand’s journey to online voting in local elections, as LGNZ announces that 2019’s proposed trial of online voting in local body elections will not go ahead.

“The proposed trial of online voting in next year’s local body elections will not proceed after the working party comprised of nine councils made the reluctant decision to halt the trial,” says a prepared statement by Local Government NZ.

“Although the working party had recently selected a provider that satisfied all of the security and delivery requirements, the cost burden for the councils involved ultimately forced the decision.”

“With rising postal costs and growing disengagement with elections, there is simply too much at stake to give up now.”

The main reason appears to be cost. While the provider was reportedly able to provide the necessary security requirements, concerns over the cost of the project has resulted in the working party – consisting of several local councils, LGNZ (Local Government New Zealand) and SOLGM (New Zealand Society of Local Government Managers) – making the decision to scuttle the project.

“The working party is hugely disappointed that the trial won’t proceed at next year’s local body elections,” says spokesperson Marguerite Delbet.

“We will continue to work in partnership with central government and the wider local government network to ensure online voting is a reality for future elections. With rising postal costs, sections of our communities currently unable to vote privately and growing disengagement with elections generally, there is simply too much at stake to give up now.”

It’s a disappointing result five years in the making.  A 2016 trial was similarly abandoned due to concerns from the Government that more work was required to ensure a trial would meet public and government expectations. While online voting has been legal in New Zealand since 2001, actually rolling out an effective trial has eluded LGNZ, despite successful implementations at both local and national levels overseas.

But those ‘successful’ international implementations are not without their own complications. During September’s ‘Making democracies harder to hack’ workshop – a collaborative event run by the Australian National University and the US Indiana University – researchers urged US authorities to abandon digital voting means and revert to traditional pen-and-paper ballots. “Beyond political parties, vulnerabilities are replete across the myriad locally managed systems that together comprise the U.S. election infrastructure, including voting machines that in some cases – such as in the case of many Pennsylvania counties – have ‘zero paper trails’ and are often running ‘severely outdated operating systems like Windows XP,’ which has not been patched since 2014.“

Add to that increased interest in US election from both Russian and Chinese authorities and it’s easy to see why developed nations, as well as emerging markets, are still grappling with the best ways to manage cyber risk and build trust in digital voting systems.

Either way, for new Zealand it’s a pity: The archaic post-based system has been in long term decline. The complexities of local elections make booth voting impractical.

Despite the disappointing result, the LGNZ is putting on a brave face. While the 2019 trial has been abandoned, the working party is aiming to deliver online voting for the 2022 local body elections.

“The working party, with the support of the Department of Internal Affairs, has made significant progress in this area over the course of the last 18 months, proving that with the right regulatory framework and the financial support of the wider central and local government community, a reliable and secure online voting system can be successfully delivered within the local government context.”

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