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Postal voting – essentially dead

Written By: - Date published: 7:41 am, February 25th, 2020 - 62 comments
Categories: Abuse of power, auckland supercity, elections, electoral commission, electoral systems, local government, Politics - Tags: , , , ,

Stuff has an article up about last years local body elections in Auckland. As usual when it comes to politics as reported by mainstream media, the interesting parts are at the end.

The target had been to achieve a turnout of 40 per cent, but the result slipped 3.2 per cent lower than in 2016 when 38.5 per cent voted.

This was despite trialling some new techniques.

The council ran a range of promotional programmes in the run-up to voting, including marketing campaigns, taking vote collection boxes to public markets and transport hubs, and running more than 50 “one stop shops” where people could enroll and vote.

The analysis report links the success of the one-stop shops to the boost in special voting, with more than 6000 special votes cast – half as much again as in 2016.

“We are attributing the jump to the fact that many people told us they had not received their voting papers through the mail,” Marguerite Delbet, the general manager of Democracy Services, told Stuff in October.

“Also we ran more than 50 ‘One Stop Shops’ where special votes were cast – we estimate we processed approximately 1700 votes at those.”

They also ran an online survey about online voting and got a predictable sampling error.

Auckland Council randomly surveyed 1,871 residents online about their involvement in the 2019 election, among which 29 percent of non-voters said they had started filling out their papers, but ran out of time.

When asked to choose between the current postal voting system, and online voting in future, 66 per cent said they would prefer to vote online, with 26 per cent sticking with postal.

Among the non-voters, 28 per cent said they would have been more likely to vote had polling booths been used, like they are in general elections.

I can understand that. It took me an hour to read the booklet and to fill out the Auckland voting. It then took me close to an hour to find out where there was a remaining postbox and to bike to it and back to send off my votes.

Voting costs me both through my rates, but more importantly through my time. 

As someone who has spent the past 30 years programming for a living both on networked systems and embedded ones, I’m deeply in not favour of having online voting systems. In fact I can’t think of a programmer who is, if they stop to think past the convenience. 

I don’t think that there is any way to make online voting systems robust without spending the kind of money that the banks do for their online banking systems.

I know that the local councils and even the electoral commission simply don’t have the hundreds of millions of dollars required to ensure robustness and ongoing development. The stuff article talks about Auckland City spending $1.6 million on trying to increase turnout. Kind of drop in a bucket.

They’d have to spend massively more than that each year just to maintain the code base against potential threats. Online security isn’t cheap and it is really expensive when you’re dealing with online systems that only get used every 3 years.

Plus the risks involved in subverted or aborted election are potentially enormous because of the kinds of resources that are at issue. Just the costs of determining that there has even been a problem within the voting system are immense. How do you audit a process when you can’t see what got missed? Ask the Stats department…

I’d be perfectly happy to prove this whenever a online voting system is put in place. I’ll do my absolute best to crash or subvert it, both as an individual, and in cooperation with other skilled people. It is a task worth doing just to look for vulnerabilities. Hell, it may even prove the concept.

I’d point out that any such online voting project should have an open source policy. It is the most effective way to get the online communities to probe it for vulnerabilities and to satisfy us that it is even possible. None of this crap closed source ‘commercial secret’ stuff please. As a concept that just leaves you in the position of knowing that you’ve got obvious bugs, having a monumental faith in a limited number of programmers/testers and praying a lot. The kind of thing that entrepreneurs do – which is why they go bankrupt so regularly.

But there is an alternative. A simple paper based widespread poll booth system does the same thing at a fraction of the cost.

Works for the general election. Gets a higher turnout. Has a pretty simple distributed system with lots of whistle blowers. It has and inherent audit process.

It also takes me about a quarter of the time to perform a vote in a general election than it does for the local body elections. 

Plus simplifying some of those frigging election votes would help a lot. Start by demanding a upfront substantial deposit from candidates. 

62 comments on “Postal voting – essentially dead ”

  1. Sacha 1

    I don’t think that there is any way to make online voting systems robust without spending the kind of money that the banks do for their online banking systems.

    Yes, most people have no idea how much effort our local banking system has put into security over decades. Often used as a comparison of desired ease, however..

    • NZJester 1.1

      Even with all the money they have, banks still sometimes get hacked and lose money, they just do not admit it publicly.

      Some foreign power who love meddling in other countries' affears also have well resourced cyber-attack divisions. The US, Russia, and China are 3 of the largest with access to massive supercomputer systems to help them.

      The contracted bidders for these systems are also incentivised to cut corners to keep costs down and maximize profit by and for their investors.

  2. Sabine 2

    Maybe its not the voting that is the issue but the lack of enthusiasm to vote for 'any of the above'. Maybe if 'non of the above' would be added to the ticket postal voting would have a record voters.

    Reminder, there is over a million odd people in this country that can't be bothered by any of the parties to pull the lever. Maybe it is the parties that should be held to account rather then the voters and the tools they use to cast their votes.

    Also, nothing online is ever really secure.

    • lprent 2.1

      I'd into "none of the above". However I think that it is a way too simplistic to actually improve the voting.

      I'd also set that to make it more interesting by having compulsory voting with a large fines and no exceptions except for being non-resident. That way we could provide an incentive for the freeloader non-voters to leave.

      If "none of the above" rose above some value that then the election has to be rerun in 6 months with the low vote candidates barred from being on the ballot for two election cycles.

      Plus there would be an additional tax on all ratepayers / taxpayers to fully pay for the extra election.

      I suspect that would improve the quality of the education of the electorate, the quality of candidates, and to provide an incentive by all to improve the process.

      • Sacha 2.1.1

        I recall student Ak Uni association elections where No Confidence won – and the subsequent re-election drew no better candidates.

      • Sabine 2.1.2

        I could live with your scenario, but i don't see it coming to life ever. Non of the suits would ever admit that people might not want them if they were given half a chance to say ' fuck no to all of you'. I would love to vote that.

        Point in case, my last local body election was idiotic. No one wanted to declare any party affiliations, all only wanted to cut rates, increase spending and bring god to schools. Why on earth would i want to vote for any one of these contenders? Close my eyes drop the pen and bingo? lol, i did abstain from voting. Maybe next time I know this place a bit better and i might have an opinion other then paying rates.

  3. Stunned Mullet 3

    I vote in every election despite the plethora of reprobates, troughers and ne'er do wells that run each time..

    I can certainly see why a large proportion of the public don't vote in local body elections no matter what the methodology of the vote taking is, regardless of who gets in there is little to no difference in the behaviour of the council and its various ratepayer funded organisations.

  4. weka 4

    My theory about low voter turnout in local elections is twofold: one is people don't care as much as about general elections, and I'd guess this is because they either see councils ticking over, or they don't see how councils affect their lives.

    The other, and main one imo, is the complexity of voting. Like you say Lynn, it's a time sucking process. The booklet that comes out with the voting papers is next to useless in size, format and content. I found the various websites and media outlets providing an explanation of candidates interesting but patchy (lots of the Otago and Southland election not covered), and not that easy to use. There's potential there I think, but I get the sense that most of it is designed for people that spend a lot of time online and want someone else to collate information to make a decisions easier rather than giving a comprehensive view.

    The whole DBH, community board, various other votes is not presented in a way that helps understanding of either why people should bother voting in them, or how those organisations work with the people being voted. That probably applies to councils too.

    Councils or central govt should be providing an A4 size format booklet, that has a section at the start explaining clearly how the voting works and why it mattesr, and then sections for each of the various orgs, the candidates, and where to get additional, non-biased candidate information. A second booklet on civics and why it matters would help. They can make PDF versions of those for people that want them on their devices. None of this is hard to design.

    Every voting cycle there is confusion about voting times and places too (esp on the final voting day which is a Saturday). Twitter was saying you have to post your votes by x date or it won't count, but that was largely Wgtn and Ak people based on their posting times which aren't relevant to many other places. The SM message of 'unclear date or you're vote won't count' will no doubt put people off bothering.

    Various other orgs including the govt department that organises voting and local councils were likewise not clear on when the posting cut off was. It seemed we were supposed to know our local postal service, which would be fine if it weren't for the fact that NZ Post has for several decades been run by people who don't seem to understand what a postal service is for. The govt taking control of that again would help enormously.

    A combination of postal and polling booth voting seems a good thing to trial. I'd skip postal and vote directly just to avoid the whole what date? thing.

    • Phil 4.1

      … an A4 size format booklet, that has a section at the start explaining clearly how the voting works and why it mattesr, and then sections for each of the various orgs, the candidates, and where to get additional, non-biased candidate information. A second booklet on civics…

      There's already too much reading to do on the candidates and most people don't pay attention to it. You're proposing adding even more information. I don't think that's it, chief.

      I like the idea of voting being undertaken on a public holiday, but if it's a Monday or Friday you incentivise people to take off for a long weekend out of town. Maybe make it a Wednesday?

      • weka 4.1.1

        I'm actually proposing changing the format of the information more than anything. Making it a different size doesn't necessarily mean more to read, and probably means less to read if designed well. Any additional information can be designed within that to be optional. The point is to get out of the ghetto of trying to fit too much information into a small space simply because it fits in a cheaper envelope.

        • alwyn

          You suggest that a major problem with voting in Council elections is

          "The other, and main one imo, is the complexity of voting.".

          I live in Wellington and we have have STV system of voting. To ensure your vote is going to count you really have to rank all, or in practice a large proportion of the candidates. In the Parliamentary vote you only have to decide who you think is the best person to be the Electorate Rep and which Party you favour.

          That is a far simpler decsion to make than trying to decide whether candidate E is preferred to candidate G as your seventh choice.

          I like STV voting, and would like to see it for Parliamentary Electorate Reps but it is inherently much more complicated to decide on your vote.

          • Paul Campbell

            Here in Dunedin we get 40 people to rank – there's about 10^47 possible answers …. I'd like an online tool that helps me do the ranking: drag and drop with possible links to candidate's election material

            This is not online voting, because we'd still print out the resulting ballot (and could manually check it) and send it in

            • lprent

              Same with the DHB up here. That was where most of my hour of voting here went.
              Ummm that would be worthwhile. Time as usual is the issue.

            • McFlock

              That would be damned useful.

              I put my top two in order, then who I hated at the bottom, but the middle bits were largely random.

              And for the dhb, after the people I knew about, the doctors had highest priority.

              But an app to speed it up would be cool – as well as no flicking back and forth in the mailout booklets.

              • We talked about doing it as a public service – the real trick though is to be able to produce something that the various councils will accept as a ballot

                • McFlock

                  Hmmm. Isn't there a law against reproducing ballots or things that look like them?

                  I figured it'd have to be run by the election commission or the relevant councils.

              • mpledger

                I tend not to think of DHBs voting as finding the best rank ordering of people but finding the best team – so I look for good medical knowledge, good business knowledge, good consumer knowledge, good process knowledge, good primary care knowledge etc. And then diversity of age, sex and ethnicity.

    • AB 4.2

      I'm not sure that the problem would be reduced by giving voters even more information to plough through. The issue for me is that there are so many categories (mayor, council, local board, hospital board, licensing trust) and such a lot of low-quality candidate-sourced information that it's complex, time-consuming and error-prone. I'd simply like party affiliations back – real ones, not bullshit 'tickets' like 'Progress for the Shore' or similar. A proper party affiliation is the best shortcut marker of someone's ideology and values. These bullshit 'tickets' are part of the pretense that social class doesn't really exist.

      • weka 4.2.1

        I don't believe it's possible to make an informed choice from the candidate info in the booklets as they stand. The larger format isn't about giving people more to read, it's about making the process easier to follow. It's a design issue. eg the basics could be covered and then pointers to where to get more information (look in this website, go to this library, phone this council who will post you the pack).

        What do you mean by party affiliations? Do you mean Labour, Nat, Green etc? We don't really have that down South.

        • AB

          Yes – I was meaning the major political parties. I also agree that better quality information would help – and politically-obsessed tragics like me will read it. I don't think most people will though – they need a way to make a quick decision that they feel confident about. I see Sanctuary below at 7 is saying something similar.

          • weka

            Sanct doesn't present a solution though. And what about candidates that have no party affiliation? Are you saying that only parliamentary political parties should be allowed to stand candidates in local body elections?

            • Kay

              Weka, there's always room for people to run who are truely independent. The problem is, do a bit more digging behind many of the candidates running as 'Independent' and you'll often find strong right-wing leanings, often National party connections.

              Certainly in Wellington, it's not often you'll find anyone running on the National ticket (unlike Labour and Greens), actually, do they anywhere, or is it always under some alias- Citizens & Ratepayers etc, to make them come across more neutral to the voters who can't be bothered researching?

              • weka

                I have some sympathy but I think the solution to that is education and civics rather than forcing people onto party tickets. Or have better interviewing where people get asked more in depth questions. Make them fill out the political compass questionnaire 😈

                It's probably a regional issue, but in the south running on a ticket doesn't happen much, seems weird to me.

              • For years Dunedin had a proxy-National "Citizen's Party" who usually ran the council.

                They were an old-boys club, to run as a candidate you had to join them at one meeting and be nominated at the next, meetings happened every 3 years, unless they really wanted you.

                Some time in the 70s someone figured out that they were an unincorporated society, didn't own the name, so a bunch of lefties incorporated a Citizens Party and ran a slate against them

            • AB

              "Are you saying that only parliamentary political parties should be allowed to stand candidates in local body election?"

              No, I'm against all such forms of coercion. I think that individuals should be encouraged to show their party affiliation/membership, not hide it. And if they don't show it, and claim to be 'independent' or 'neither left nor right', then they can be given the extra scrutiny such evasions deserve.

              • weka

                but lots of people don't belong to a political party. Are you saying they should have to declare who they vote for? Which election? What about people that don't relate to the left/right spectrum? (lots of younger people).

                • Alice Tectonite

                  Some of the larger places have the issue of Nats aligned people starting little local parties used as sockpuppets used to maintain the fiction that Nats are not involved in local elections.

                  Possibly make independents sign a declaration that the have no party political affiliations and will receive no funding or other resources from established political parties. Possible ask them to disclose any recent previous involvement with parties, particularly if they have stood as candidates. Probably ask the similar of people standing for little local (possibly fake) parties. Penalties for lying obviously.

                  Sick & tired of the BS sockpuppeting mostly by right wing candidates.

                  • Molly

                    That would be a great solution. In Auckland I can think of a few local government teams that are undeclared National party aligned.

                    • weka

                      Having *all candidates make such a declaration seems a good solution. Declare any party affiliations, any donations or support.

                    • Molly

                      Yes. If it was standard practice for all candidates, we would have a more transparent process and relevant information for voting.

                      The reason I mentioned National is because in my neck of the woods, it is primarily National aligned or affiliated candidates that use the strategy mentioned.

  5. Climaction 5

    Align all the various elections to be held over a two day period Friday / Saturday every 3 years and make the Friday a public holiday.

    • Sacha 5.1

      Too many people would just go to the beach.

      • Phil 5.1.1

        Easily solved – hold our elections in Winter.

      • Climaction 5.1.2

        Then all those people need to stop whining if they don’t get the result they desire.

        there is no better way to encourage all people of working age to vote than to make it as concise and as easy as possible.

        maybe a 1% tax break for all those who vote as well. Just to sweeten the pot. It’s equivalent to getting paid for doing 1 days civic work every three years

      • weka 5.1.3

        Polling booth at surf clubs?

    • Sanctuary 5.2

      Make election day a Wednesday, which is a paid public holiday like Xmas – but you only get paid upon producing your "I voted" receipt from the polling station to your employer. Otherwise, it is a compulsory unpaid day off – better than trying to fine non-voters…

  6. Alice Tectonite 6

    Remove DHB elections from council elections. Just adds complexity, looks intimidating and has nothing to do with councils.

    • Graeme 6.1

      Just get rid of the elected DHB board and have them appointed by the Health Select Committee. That should ensure competent people and reduce the parochialism. They are in part appointed now, and in some cases totally appointed.

      • Alice Tectonite 6.1.1

        Not a bad idea as they don't seem to have any accountability to voters. After voting hear sod all from the members until the next election …

  7. Sanctuary 7

    The biggest information issue facing voters is the opaqueness of the candidate's position on most issues. The time has surely come for candidates to stop being "independent" or "Vision" or "Citizens" or "Local Alliance for Progress" or whatever other stupid titles they invent for local elections and to start encouraging candidates to run with at least as endorsed by a major political brand? To often people are afraid to vote lest candidate Michelle Booger (City Future) who says in her little blurb in the pamphlet that she loves the city, has a dog called fluffy and is a member of several community groups turns out to be a raving Rogernomics snob who actually hates cities as hotbeds of socialism and lives mostly in a walled estate on Waiheke?

    • Alice Tectonite 7.1

      Yes, end the BS fiction that National don't stand in council elections. They just do it via sockpuppet local "parties". Make them do it on the National Party ticket.

      • alwyn 7.1.1

        But who is going to know who they, or any other candidate represents?

        In the Wellington Mayoralty election Justin Lester, who ended up losing, ran as an official Labour candidate. The voting papers, and all his election material labelled him as such.

        On the Monday after the election the Leader of the Labour Party, and Prime Minister, siad he hadn't been a Labour Candidate. He was she said, and Independent and had run as such!

        If the Leader of a Party doesn't know who the party candidates are how is the Public expected to follow their machinations?


        • Alice Tectonite

          Justin Lester was rather forgettable, talked lots at the beginning, didn't deliver a whole lot. At least he actually stood on a proper party ticket.

          Anyway I was getting at candidates or local political parties that have links to major parties. A Wellington example is Wellington Party started by National Party aligned people. Basically a front so that National can maintain the fiction that they don't stand in local body elections.

    • Phil 7.2

      To often people are afraid to vote lest candidate Michelle Booger (City Future) who says in her little blurb in the pamphlet that she loves the city, has a dog called fluffy and is a member of several community groups turns out to be a raving Rogernomics snob

      Surely a blurb that contains no local body policy positions whatsoever is, in and of itself, a red flag against voting for that person?

      I also have a rule-of-thumb that I won't vote for anyone who uses an exclamation mark in their blurb, or anyone who has worse grammar than me (and i'm shit at it). Helps to cull the list pretty quick.

    • McFlock 7.3

      Yeah – there are too many people running for too many different roles on too many different boards, and most of the candidate statements are bland "mum&apple pie" bs. The establishment candidates and the loudest candidates get the grease.

      It's not like general elections, where it's just two ticks and maybe one or two referenda if you can be bothered. 5 mins and you're done.

      I just don't have any better ideas. It's either half an hour (or more) spent on forms at home, or the same at a polling booth. Maybe more personalised info that only shows the boards that elector can vote candidates on, but that would have its own disadvantages and distribution problems.

  8. William 8

    Fully agree about online voting for all the reasons you state.

    I don't see why we can't have both postal & booth voting. Let the voters use which is most convenient for them. Because the local body elections are more complex (especially for areas that use STV for all the elections), post or deliver the papers early as at present, fill them out at home, & return them by either method. The booths only need to have a box for delivering papers into, and to be open for probably the full week before close date.

    Wellington City sort of did that in 2019 by having boxes at local libraries & service centres, but there could be much better coverage e.g. boxes in supermarkets etc, and lots of publicity about where to drop them off.

  9. mosa 9

    " As a programmer, I’d just call it stupid and dangerous "

    And that is why New Zealand will adopt it , it is the perfect Neoliberal tool too undermine any threat against its interests.

    I am sure the work is being done too present the propaganda and the marketing campaign too sell it.

    The implications are huge and the warnings are clear but we will end up with it regardless.

    You can put your money on it.

  10. Enough is Enough 10

    Thoughts on Microsoft's EletionGuard?

    Not quite online voting but certainly shows the direction of trravel.

    • lprent 10.1

      https://github.com/microsoft/electionguard-c/blob/master/README.rst ?

      Right sort of a approach with the C version. I really couldn't trust any c# system in terms of being able to accurately check the code – there are always too many dependencies. I speak as someone who has just had to review and clean a couple of midsize c# back end projects.

      Incredibly under baked, very limited target (voting machines is about the smallest target possible) and the recent types of changes in the code and reported issues tend toward the extremely scary. fscanf errors for instance <shudder>

      It really just indicates the kind of issues that show on even a tiny system level.

      • Enough is Enough 10.1.1


        I had only read about it through the media so good to get some informed feedback.

  11. observer 11

    Funny how proponents of online voting like to imagine what would happen if we ditch the pen and paper, when we've just had an example of what does happen.

    The Iowa caucus.

  12. NZJester 12

    The fact that when it comes to posting a letter I have no idea where my closest mailbox is is a big factor as well. I used to know where the closet and next two closest all where, but all 3 are gone now. One I used for years was removed from just up my street a few years back this was after they had changed the pickup time in it from 5:00pm to 2:30pm a couple of years before hand. Then the main one in town got moved when they moved the post shop to a location that is not as easily as easly accessible by car as you can no longer pull into a convenient park on the street near and walk to the box but have to park a good distance from it and walk back.

  13. Tiger Mountain 13

    Only NZJester has yet mentioned the mechanics of post. This might rank #2 for low voter response after the biggie of alienation and disinterest.

    With the ratio of renters to home owners changing over the last few decades, there are less stable addresses and more transience and flats–e.g. 16 A, B, and C. Sometimes with no obvious letter box. People miss mail or it never arrives. Thousands have never posted a letter or other item apart from receiving courier boxes–strange but true.

    Local mail boxes are disappearing rapidly and as Kiwibank splits off, NZ Post is operating in back alleys and bookshops, rather than once more visible locations. So mail apart from electronic and courier packs is dying.

    LPRENT’s suggestion is the one–a voting day and voting booths.

  14. expat 14

    Be the first time I've agreed with the Admin.

    Post could have been shorter tho.

    [Changed user handle and e-mail address to those used here previously. Shout if not correct – Incognito]

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