Not how but who and why

October 28, 2013

Electronic voting is one of the suggestions for improving participation in local body elections.

Vaughan Davis cautions against that:

. . . There is a danger – and by this I mean both a danger to democracy and a danger that we will waste public money – of rushing to the electronic solution without really understanding what’s happening here. People vote when they understand the issues and the candidates, when there’s a close contest and when they believe their vote will make a difference. 

The Electoral Commission looked at this in detail in their post mortem of the 2011 general election. Low trust in politicians, one-sided electoral races and a general lack of interest in politics were the main factors in choosing not to vote and there’s no reason to suspect local body elections would be any different.

Process and technology didn’t rate as major barriers and chief electoral officer Robert Peden indicated at the time that overseas trials showed online voting had not improved turnout. 

It’s easy to see, though, why the idea of electronic voting has the support it does. For the voter (well, the woulda-shoulda-coulda-voter) it’s a convenient excuse. “Of course I would have voted online! Definitely!” It’s also far easier to live with than accepting they don’t care enough about their communities to have a say every three years in who runs them. And for local bodies (or central government) building a website is a far more tangible and tickable box than, well, motivating the electorate. . .

Electronic voting would be easier than postal voting. There’d be no danger of losing your ballot papers nor the trouble some people appear to have in finding a post box to return them.

But postal voting takes away the sense of community you get in going to a polling booth on polling day, or casting a special vote beforehand and that would be just as much an issue with electronic voting.

However, the nub of the problem isn’t how we vote but why we vote, or don’t.

Voting requires engagement and interest in local bodies and knowledge of the people and issues.

Too few of us have that with councils and councillors.

Electronic communication and social media could help address that.

But electronic voting without engagement won’t.

Councils should be working on a strategy now to connect with and engage the people whose rates they spend and whose votes they’ll want in three years time.

Without that engagement the method making voting easier won’t make it any more likely that people will do it.

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