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Online voting – no. Try polling booths

Written By: - Date published: 8:10 am, October 14th, 2019 - 42 comments
Categories: Dirty Politics, local body elections, Politics - Tags: ,

Amid calls to install online voting from the technologically illiterate who are appear to be unaware of the risks, there is clear disagreement from those who do know the risks. Politicians should listen to them.

The current debate centers around the continuing failure of postal voting. This years turnout in the local body elections looks appalling and is likely to only get worse. I seldom bother digging out the snail mail these days because everything important comes through my email or is paid directly. I really only get junk mail, mostly from politicians, through the restricted mailbox in the foyer of my apartment building – and the local body elections. 

It is the same in the other direction. When I was sending a response to a summons for jury service the other day, the envelope rode in my pocket for 2 weeks because I couldn’t find a postbox when I was biking to and from work. It looks like they have almost all been taken down since the last time I had to respond via mail.

But the solution to falling voting isn’t going to be online voting. It is going to be to revert back to the safety of paper and polling booths rather than trying and failing to set up safe and secure online voting. 

I’ve been a computer programmer for a long time. I started writing code on university networks back in 1979. I’ve been wired in one way or another ever since. I’ve written a lot of networked systems to join people in cooperative system. Most, like this one, have been pretty successful at the task they were designed to do.

I’ve also had a hobby of being involved in politics. A lot of time that has been helping to create or run canvassing and election day systems. Frequently stretching the available technology to get everything to work. Those who know me well usually say that my two main interests are programming and politics. It is a vast simplification – but a great and justifiable tagline.

Over the years my viewpoint about the possibility of online voting has waxed and waned with the technological innovations. But as each innovation has revealed its underlying flaws, the more and more that you realise the basic problem with applying them to voting.

It is damn hard to create any computerised system that doesn’t have single points of failure or failure that are lethal when you have something as important as voting.

Having humans in a decentralised system to point out the flaws and any corruption is what makes democratic voting work. It is simple, transparent, cost efficient and highly effective. Going to the local polling booth down the street on a particular weekend day at a booth fulfills all of the needs of a busy society.

It eliminates almost all of the possible failure points in a system apart from politicians finding reasons for voters to vote. With pre-voting at a booth it makes it a system that appears to be sustaining its turnout. Adding a “None of the above” no confidence vote would probably add the incentive to get more people out to vote.

As a system, it doesn’t require massive amounts of pre-election day testing because humans are pretty good at being adaptive and fixing any of the little glitches that inevitably arise. There are also no single points of failure because there are always multiple eyes on all parts of the system. Even where there are problems, they are mostly isolated to small portions of the voters. And physical voting is incredibly hard to hack or subvert directly.

Just think of the safeguards that people already inherently add to most online systems. The frequent analogy by people of the banking system that is used in support of  online voting is a classic case of false projection. They ignore the feedback loop provided by the customers in the system.

What makes online banking work is that banking customers have an vested interest and a rapid response to money disappearing from their accounts. Any corruption or flaws in the system are usually detected and subsequently blocked very fast.

What I can’t see in any online voting schemes that has a way to provide  that kind of feedback loop – at least not without making it easy for hackers or leakers to steal and use voting records.

Online voting is one of those ideas that seems good superficially – that doesn’t appear to be cost effective or be particularly worth pursuing.

Personally, my basic response to implementing any such system would be to see how many inherent flaws and exploits in any such system so that I could find and publish them widely. I’d consider that to be my public duty. Now that would be fun… 

42 comments on “Online voting – no. Try polling booths ”

  1. mpledger 1

    The other comparison between banks and voting is that if something goes wrong at the bank then they have time (make time) to fix it up. If something goes wrong with voting it could lead to a lot of confusion for weeks or months as they try to fix an unprecedented mistake – probably ending in court. If the result depends on a few hundred votes (overhangs etc) then it's going to come down to one, two or three people to make the final decision about who won.

    Anyway, the way National respond to security flaws is to exploit them as much as possible to their own advantage so I would say no to online voting.

  2. Dukeofurl 2

    "The frequent analogy by people of the banking system that is used in support of online voting is a classic case of false projection. They ignore the feedback loop provided by the customers in the system."

    The banks themselves make procedural errors, but they can go offline and 'reverse their mistakes'.

    However banking scams from the customer end happen all the time, but I noticed the other day when I paid a new account online , there was 2 step authentication for the first time for me. Im not so silly to think 'can never happen to me' , but I never have banking app on a mobile phone as a risk reduction measure

  3. Agora 3

    Do it as they did in ancient greece so that oligarchs or dictators found it harder to influence the outcome.

    https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/democracy-ancient-greece/

  4. Dawn Trenberth aka The Fairy Godmother 4

    When I was door knocking in the Papatoetoe subdivision for my Labour team I met many people who had either never got or misplaced their voting papers. I knocked on doors where the old residents were still on the roll and presumably their ballot papers arrived and the new people were not enrolled. The postal system is complete mess. Some people did do special votes and the night markets at Papatoetoe were packed with people enrolling and voting. Many people asked me if they could vote at the school on Saturday. Let's go back to the ballot box. The people where I live would welcome it. One other thing Auckland council contracted the running of the elections to a private company election services. I think we would all be better off if the electoral commission ran local elections.

  5. Agora 5

    Chapple closed our conversation with a rueful sigh. “If there’s corruption in our country, it is most likely to be found at the local level. Oversight is less, the media is weaker, and there are large amounts of money just sloshing around … I’d be very surprised if Wellington was rare in this. I think this is very common.”

    https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2019/08/13/751467/time-to-rein-in-the-cash-in-local-politics

  6. AB 6

    Idiot technocrats who view voting as just another solitary function – like paying a power bill or booking a plane ticket – always strive for convenience and efficiency. Postal voting was meant to be a step forward in convenience and efficiency – and online voting more so. They think people don't vote merely because the process is inconvenient. More likely they don't vote because their lives are sh*t and they don't think it will make a difference. Voting is an irrelevance in harried lives dominated by work and constantly serving the powerful.

    We need to do the exact opposite of what these clowns want. Instead, we should surround voting with ritual and ceremony. Make it an act of physical participation that involves going to places where other people are. Make it a day free of work – far too much work occurs anyway. Open the pubs but close the shops, have picnics in the park. "Dip him in the river who loves water".

    • Macro 6.1

      Make it an act of physical participation that involves going to places where other people are. Make it a day free of work – far too much work occurs anyway. Open the pubs but close the shops, have picnics in the park.

      Yes!

      • greywarshark 6.1.1

        Just find the right formula and everything will go well. Like drop the speed limit so it takes another half hour to go to the next town. There have been a lot of deaths on the road lately in a short period. Males running into trees. Transport authority wouldn't think that these may be suicides.

        Thought – Lower speed limits won't help those. But trying to reach the inner self in people with a message of showing courtesy and being kind to your self and others with encouragement to be a skilled driver might do the job; show respect for drivers, not just dismiss them like difficult children.

  7. adam 7

    How about rather than how to vote – ask the question why do people just don't want to vote.

    To many commentators are calling people lazy for not voting – I know many, many people who chose not to vote. Because at some point you have to recognise the system is broken and withdraw your support.

    People no longer count – they are a commodity, and with postal votes or online votes that commodification has been laid bare.

    • Andre 7.1

      Go on them, adam. Tell us why you think people don't vote. And how you think the system could be changed into something the majority of the population would think is better than what we now have. Details, please.

      • adam 7.1.1

        Already said a few dozen time why I think people are not voting.

        As for solutions – simple really – smaller councils which are more democratic. Make it so people can engage with the local body – not some abstract political beast.

        Good example of abstract political beast, is the super city – which was really just the removal of the last vestiges of local council, and turning it into what the old regional council looked like, plus being equally hard to engage with. Hard to understand and deeply anti-democratic.

        Funny how devolution turned out to be the another lie of the neo-liberal agenda.

        • Andre 7.1.1.1

          You think people don't vote simply because the organisation they are voting to put representatives onto is so big that people feel their vote is too small too bother? Welcome to living in a big city. If you want to be chatting to the local authorities all the time, Whangamomona might be more your thing. Me, I prefer having consistency rather than varying policies and standards depending on which side of the street you're on.

          For the local touch here in the big city, there's the local boards. I've had a chat or two to the local board rep, he's followed up and got an answer from council for me on an issue that mattered to me, if I pass him on the street and say hi, he might even remember my name (or not).

          Representatives are elected on the basis of votes being as equal as possible. What's undemocratic about that? Alternatively, what do you think democratic actually means?

          • adam 7.1.1.1.1

            Nope, what I said was it's too big to be democratic for a local body.

            As for my definition of democracy – obviously somthing quite different than you. I don't mean elected dictatorship for starters.

            Start here

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_democracy

            I like what they doing in Rojava, but that would probably mean being stabbed in the back, then having some right wing loony calling you a terrorist.

            Just a side note – local boards – are a joke. As are most people who sit on them. Under funded, budget restricted vanity fair's. But that Auckland for you.

            • Andre 7.1.1.1.1.1

              So if people aren't going to find the time or effort to engage in the minimalist effort of voting for representatives every three years, why are they going to find the time and motivation to get involved in the massively greater requirement of one of these other governing arrangements?

              At the simplest level, compare turnout at US states that use caucuses vs direct vote primaries. Turnouts for direct vote primaries are low enough, for caucuses it's abysmal. Or Switzerland; apparently voter turnout is almost always below 50%.

              Some of the places I've lived have had some measure of direct democracy. Frankly, most of the results I've seen have been pretty poor. Poorly thought through, stupidly populist measures getting passed that cause real problems down the track. Such as California's Proposition 13. And my rellies from Switzerland have plenty of stories about shitty outcomes there.

              Governing for all requires actual expertise and balancing of competing interests. With representative democracy, we have a chance of getting people whose full time job becomes trying to understand the nuances and unintended effects of new measures. Particularly with MMP, there's at least a chance voices at the margins will be heard and taken into account. Especially if those those at the margins actually elect representatives to be a voice for their interests. Which can't happen if they choose wilful irrelevance by not voting.

              But all too often, "direct democracy" just devolves into simple mob rule. Or even worse, single-issue obsessives with time on their hands get to dominate the process even more than they do now.

              • adam

                Yeap your own neo-liberal waka.

                Have a nice day Andre. Let me know when you decided to get of the beige bus – happy to talk then.

    • McFlock 7.2

      ask the question why do people just don't want to vote.

      Pretty low in the order of give-a-damn, really. If they don't want to vote, that's their choice, and the only people it hurts is themselves.

      We should ask how many people want to vote, but do not. We should also ask what barriers to voting exist for those people.

      I wonder how many people even post letters these days? I know businesses post to me, but I haven't mailed a letter in years. You might as well ask me to send a telegram or a fax.

      • adam 7.2.1

        'Hurt themselves', how is not voting hurting people who make that choice? When the choice is to walk away from a system which is failing them.

        "I've never felt so clean in my life" was one comment from a mate who chose not to vote for the first time.

        Who's mad – the person who keeps repeating the same process over and over thinking it will produce a different result – or the person who stops, takes a deep breath and asks how can I fix this.

        If you think nearly 60+% of the population are lazy or can't mail a letter you're delusional in thinking this is a system which is working, democratic and just. And maybe, just maybe, you might be a part of the problem rather than wanting to fix it.

        • McFlock 7.2.1.1

          I don't think 60% of the population "are lazy or can't mail a letter".
          I think that postal ballots are an unfamiliar and inconvenient process for many people.

          I use a pen maybe once a week. Everything is electronic.

          You need to clear the mail box, not accidentally throw it out with junkmail, put it on the kitchen bench, remember it, not spill stuff on it, find a pen, vote for three different things with three different systems and know what to do when you only like 4 people for 14 positions,find a postbox by a date that's different to the voting date, remember to have the envelope when you remember to stop by the postbox that time there's a free park right there, and mail it. And that's if you don't have reading difficulties or some other barrier to filling iin the form and getting out of the house to send it.

          Now, your alienated mates might be happy to bitch about how society is run without actually doing anything to change it, but maybe their egos are stopping them actually bringing about the change they want. Their discontent is self-inflicted.

          • adam 7.2.1.1.1

            Sheesh projecting much – they are doing somthing about it, and not voting is part of that.

            As for the mail excuse – keep running with that if it makes ya happy. Personally think it way more complex than that.

            • McFlock 7.2.1.1.1.1

              Not voting when the only hope for change depends on elected representatives is literally doing nothing about it.

              • adam

                And that is where we disagree.

                As I said, you are part of the problem.

                • Andre

                  How do you think not voting will bring about actual change?

                  • The Al1en

                    It won't, it's just a fantasy, and one that gives those ultra political minorities an easy cop out at election time when they realise in hard numbers how out of touch they are in their constituencies.

                • McFlock

                  How does one get change in a representative democracy without elected representatives bringing about that change?

      • AB 7.2.2

        " If they don't want to vote, that's their choice, and the only people it hurts is themselves."

        Generally I don't like the idea of people hurting themselves – wittingly or unwittingly. I think we might even have an obligation to try to prevent it happening, or at least to make the choice well-informed. What that obligation looks like in this case I have no idea, but I reckon the phenomenon is more problematic that you are suggesting.

        • McFlock 7.2.2.1

          It's a democracy, one of the few arenas where problematic self-flagellation should be allowed. I'm just happy in the knowledge that they'd likely vote for someone other than whomever I would vote for.

          There's no reason I can see why local body elections should have two or three times as many voters alienated to the point of intentional non-participation than the national elections. So that indicates to me that the problem with local body elections is something in the way they are conducted: the mechanism of voting (postal), systemic issues relating to their administration, or maybe even just the volume of positions and candidates to be voted on.

          Dunno about a full royal commission, but I do suspect we need to throw research funds at figuring out what the problem is.

          • Andre 7.2.2.1.1

            My reckons is that the sheer volume of positions and candidates is part of it. Another part of it is that people underestimate how much local government actually does affect their lives relative to central government, so don't see the point in going to the effort of voting.

            • greywarshark 7.2.2.1.1.1

              'I never felt so clean in my life' – from not voting? Could be because the mind is empty – no difficult murky decisions to be made, We all can't be like that, And Andre mentioned near the start, California Proposition 13:

              https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/1978_California_Proposition_13
              Proposition 13 is embodied in Article XIII A of the Constitution of the State of California. … The proposition decreased property taxes by assessing values at their 1976 value and restricted annual increases of assessed value of real property to an inflation factor, not to exceed 2 percent per year.

  8. Mhmmm… support.

    Keep it to the polling booth.

    The human element.

    Screw computerized this or that or voting.

    Too easily hijacked.

    The simplest solutions and techniques are often the best ones, not always so much in 'efficiency' per se'… but in 'less moving parts' that can go wrong.

  9. Pre election campaigns?… polling booths…

    Heres a slice of history to learn how its done… BEFORE everyone owned a cell phone and a laptop…

    NUBS.

    NZ Political Clips

  10. John Key , Simon Bridges…. L0L0L0L0L0L0L0L0L0L !!!

    The puppy dogs around Sir Rob Muldoon's ankles STILL after all these years of his demise ,… not even a shadow on him… and every other ChiNational PM since – INCLUDING BOLGER !!!!

    And even then it took a treasonous Labour Minister of Finance in 1984 to unlock what they truly wanted, enter Ruth Richardson – sitting board member of the London based Mont Pelerin Society .

    Would Sir Rob have ever sold this country and its people down the drain to foreign interests in the way these successive Labour and ChiNational party hacks ever did?

    I think NOT.

    Maybe that's part of the enduring success and appeal of Winston Peters, – he aint no turncoat. He supports Keynesianism and abhors neo liberalism.

    Just like Piggy did .

  11. Janet 11

    I say no to online voting.

    I think it is good to get the voting papers in advance in the mail with some information about the candidates; but posting back did not work for me. I was trying to find more out about the candidates, to the last minute, when suddenly it was too late to post, which then meant a 18Km trip into the council to place my vote in the voting box.

    Rather than posting back, I think that on the last few days some voting return boxes should be placed strategically in the suburbs and villages. This means people who have difficulty in getting to a polling booth on a set day, or can,t be bothered to, can still place their votes. On the last day, Election Day (as in the past) people who can or prefer, will go directly to a polling booth to place their votes or deposit the voting papers received originally in the mail, in the return box.

    Is there any reason why local body elections and government elections cannot be run on the same day and Polling Day be made a big fun nationwide event.

  12. I wonder what the kind of demographic skew is caused by a postal ballot. I suspect a lot of lower income voters miss out.

  13. Phil 13

    One of the things that hasn't been mentioned yet for low turnout is Option Paralysis. I do wonder if STV, in particular, suffers from this.

    With an MMP (or even FPP) vote at the GE you've got a relatively small list of candidate/party options with recognised brands and a high-penetration media environment to help narrow down your choices. Local elections tend to have the exact opposite of all those things. It makes the process of choosing who or what to vote for relatively hard.

    Bottom line for me is this: changing the voting mechanism, whether it be polling booths or online, does nothing to address the psychological barriers to local election voting.

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