Low turnouts and online voting

Local body election turnouts have been very low again, with most on the low forties – Auckland couldn’t even make 40%, in part probably due to the fact that Phil Goff was always anointed by media as a shoe in.

General election turnouts have been declining for some time as well.

In the modern world where communities and media are so fragmented is it possible to ever get any semblance of civic pride back? Most people simply don’t care about local body elections in particular.

Even those who do think they should vote struggle to front up – like me.

I filled in my voting papers with difficulty on Saturday morning and delivered them half an hour before closing (thanks DCC for having people with voting boxes picking up votes from cars in the Octagon).

A mixture of not knowing anything about most of the candidates and an awfully difficult and confusing system of voting makes procrastination easy. I seriously considered not bothering to vote.

I voted on four things.

Mayor

Eleven candidates to choose from. The incumbent was very unlikely to lose, and there was a lack of strong alternatives. Under STV ranking them 1-11 was easy enough.

Council

Forty three bloody candidates that require ranking. This is a major task to do anything other than randomly.

I started by numbering those I didn’t want elected from 43 up.

Then I numbered ones that I supported starting from 1 then working my way down.

Then I had about thirty in the middle to decide on. This became increasingly random as I worked my way up and down. Then the sequences didn’t meet in the middle, so i had miscounted somewhere.

And I didn’t care. I knew that would invalidate my vote from where I stuffed up and I didn’t care whether that was near the top or the bottom of the sequence. I just gave up.

Community Board

This was easier, with ‘only’ 12 to rank. I hardly knew anything about most of them but I looked at their pictures and read their blurb and took a stab.

Regional Council

I thought this was relatively easy, with only 10 candidates. I even knew one of them and knew of one or two others. So I ranked them. Then the fine print was pointed out to me – all the others were STV votes but the Regional Council isn’t, so I should have just ticked the six I wanted!

So I scribbled out my ranks and ticked beside them. I don’t care if that counted or not.

There must be a better way to vote.

Postal Voting

Postal voting was introduced to try and stem the decline in turnout, unsuccessfully.

There are significant flaws with postal voting.

It is common for people not to change their electoral roll addresses, especially in a university town like Dunedin. Many papers arrive at addresses where the voters don’t live any more. I received papers for someone who hasn’t lived here for several elections.

A stupid thing about enrolling is you are sent a letter by the Electoral Commission saying that if you don’t live there any more then let them know. I’m not sure how you are supposed to get this letter.

If there is no reply they assume you must still live there. This is nuts.

Postal voting is ideal for procrastinators – it’s very easy to put off voting until tomorrow. An and when it’s too late it doesn’t matter, you don’t know most of the people others voted in anyway.

Online Voting

There are strong supporters of line voting, and also strong opponents.

A trial of online voting was seriously considered by some cities and regions this election, but that fell through.

Lynn Prentice appears to not favour online voting: Online voting – the only choice for idiots

As a  computer programmer and someone who has been involved in politics for decades, I’m always amazed at idiots like Malcolm Alexander of the LGNZ talking about something that they clearly don’t understand the technicalities of. Online voting is way too fragile to roll out. And anyway young voters are still going to not have their voting details at hand.

In his language an idiot is someone he disagrees with, and I’m sure he’s called me an idiot more than once already.

I don’t think online voting could be much worse than postal voting, and you might get more people voting.

At the very least I think we should have online tools to help us vote, especially in the complex local body elections.

An app an a website that made it easy to rank (and show you where a tick was required) candidates would have made voting much easier for me, especially if it included candidate information along with links to their websites, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. Then some real research would be possible.

You can’t just stick a pin in a smart phone.

Online could also randomise the candidates so the Andersons don’t get an unfair advantage over the Willamsons. The voting papers are randomised, but when the Candidate Information booklets are in alphabetic order this adds to the voting confusion.

If I could rank candidates online, then read the results and write them onto my voting papers I think I would put much more effort into voting.

As things are now Lotto is much easier to play than local body voting – and the chances of a good result are about the same.

There must be a better way. I don’t think a properly designed online system would be any worse than what we currently have. Sure it could be abused, but so can postal voting, and I don’t think the proportions of vote cheating would be significant in most elections.

Dunedin lags lacklustre voting in the south

Voting returns are significantly down around the country, but Dunedin is worse than most. Voters are not inspired to take part in the most important of democratic processes, the election.

Southern voting returns as at last night (8 October) compared to a similar time last election:

2010 2013
Dunedin 36.3% 22.8%
Central Otago 45.0% 34.3%
Clutha 42.8% 35.4%
Lakes 33.0% 25.4%
Waitaki 38.7% 38.0%
Invercargill 46.1% 33.0%
Southland 31.7% 32.9%
Gore 39.9% 30.7%

Why is voting so much lower this election? And why is it worse than most in Dunedin?

There seems to be a resounding lack of interest in local body elections. There have been many opportunities for the public to assess candidates at forums but most of these have been poorly attended.

There are no contentious issues that have motivated public interest.

The current mayor and council have diminishing levels of public satisfaction (2013 DCC survey).

There is no obvious strong contender for the mayoralty despite lukewarm support for a mediocre incumbent mayor.

Local media coverage has been balanced but largely uncontentious:

  • Candidate coverage has been reasonably fair but has failed to highlight significant differences or contentious issues.
  • Incumbents milk news coverage but this has been mostly bad or discouraging news.

National media coverage has been uninspiring, limited and very selective.

I have personally tried to promote and provoke social media interest and discussion but response has been very modest.

It’s too late to rev up the current election. It will be up to the incoming mayor and council to make sure they are seen as far more relevant in the lives of Dunedin people – that means engaging much more effectively.

Ironically doing exactly this has been a key part of my campaigning, but the people aren’t listening and the media have not been interested in reporting or examining this.

The bad news is that this election is more of a lottery than usual. Far too few people are interested enough to vote, and many of those voting base their decision on very superficial reasons.One woman rang me and told me they are voting for me because I was dressed more smartly than the incumbent on local television (I wore a tie). Another person said they wouldn’t be voting for me because I was “too nice” for the job.

The good news is that the campaign has provided an opportunity for very fruitful networking and I have a list of people who are interested in establishing a strong group outside council to promote the interests of the people in council. Depending on results there could also be some councillors who are prepared to push far better engagement from the inside as well.

This may help boost public interest in the next election. It could start a revolution in doing democracy – that is my aim.

It’s obvious that the public and the media will take a lot of convincing. I’m up for it.