Online voting trial

Wellington City Council is one of nine councils considering taking part in an online voting trial in 2019.

We want to modernise and future-proof New Zealand's local electoral system, and give people a reliable, safe and easy way to vote in local elections.

Legislation

The Department of Internal Affairs is working on legislation (the Local Electoral Matters Bill) to enable an online voting trial for the 2019 elections.

Online voting has been legal since 2001 but the law says the Government has to make regulations that set out how an online voting system would operate and the expected standards. These regulations have not been made yet. 

The Bill makes a number of changes and sets the regulations which will enable a trial of online voting. The main change is that councils will be given access to voters’ dates of birth which means they can verify that a voter is who they say they are. Councils will also get access to data the Electoral Commission keeps on voter’s ages (grouped in 5-year bands) to help them figure out how effective online voting is. 

We expect the Bill will be considered by Parliament in December.

If the legislation progresses in time, nine councils have agreed in principle to try out online voting for the 2019 local body elections.

The trial will only progress if the costs and risks are deemed to be manageable, the relevant district health boards, regional councils and licencing trusts agree to it, and the nine Councils confirm their agreement by late 2018.

Reasons to trial online voting

  • Local government elections use New Zealand’s postal service, which is becoming more expensive, less reliable, and less time effective, so we need to find a viable alternative. 
  • Voting in local elections is only open for three weeks. Much of that time is lost because it takes a week to send votes out and another week to get them back through the postal system.
  • People want to vote online – after the 2016 elections 74 percent of Aucklanders said they wanted to vote online. 
  • Online voting will also make voting easier for people overseas or with disabilities that mean they need help to cast their vote.
  • We live in a digital world. Most people use the internet for social media, banking, shopping and more.

What's happening?

The nine councils considering the trial are working with central government, Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) and the Society of Local Government Managers (SOLGM) to decide what they need to be able to offer online voting and how much it will cost.

The councils are working on a business case to define the scope, risks and costs involved in the proposed trial. To finish this we need to know what the full requirements are and will need to ask providers of online voting technology for quotes. We expect to have a list of possible providers by late November.

We won’t be making a final decision about taking part in the trial until we know what the requirements, time and costs are, and that the district health boards, regional councils and licensing trusts are agreed. 

The councils taking part in the trial will jointly choose at least one company to provide the technology to run a secure online election by running either a robust tender or a request for proposal process. Those companies that want to be considered will need to meet a set of technical criteria, and will have to show that they have experience in running a secure online election. 

What it means for voters and voter turn out

If the trial goes ahead and you are registered to vote for one of the nine councils taking part in the trial you may be able to vote online during the 2019 local body elections. 

Auckland Council plans to offer the trial to about 10% of its voters. The other eight councils are intending to offer online voting to all their voters. You will also be offered the opportunity to vote in another way (such as by post) if you wish. 

The trial is to test if online voting is a viable alternative to postal voting. We also hope it will increase voter turnout, but we know it’s not the only way to do this. Keeping elections relevant, informing the public and engaging communities are just as important. 

Security 

Security is the main concern in this trial. Everything possible is being done to ensure the system is as, or more, secure than the current postal voting system. If either the councils, or the Government, are not confident that this is the case then we will not proceed with the trial. 

No voting system is 100 per cent secure. We are trying to find a viable alternative to postal voting with high levels of security assurance. We are working with IT security experts to make sure the security processes are up to scratch.

New Zealanders already do lots of things online such as banking, shopping and applying for passports. This shows that interacting online can be secure. 

One security check will be the online voting provider will have to set up a second system that records the vote. Each voter will be able to look at this system to see that their vote has been recorded properly. 

The councils, their provider and their electoral officer will also have detailed contingency procedures to cover things such as equipment failure, and suspected or real security breaches.

Voters worried that someone might impersonate them will be able to register to get a notification that an online vote has been cast in their name. 
We will also have systems in place to avoid double up.  If the election provider receives a paper vote and an online vote from the same voter, then by law they must disqualify both votes. The only exception is where a voter can prove that they didn’t personally cast one of the votes.

Other options 

Voting in a booth (as for the general election)

Voting in person at a booth is not a practical solution for local government elections, because voters have to make many more choices and vote in a number of different elections for example for district health boards, licencing trusts, regional and local councils, and mayors). They would have to spend too long in the booth to make this practicable.

Just moving to online voting (no trial)

New Zealand could just implement online voting at local elections in 2019, but the advice from other countries that use online voting is that it is best to take gradual steps to implement online voting, with a pause after each step to reflect on what’s been learned. 

Our voting system is also a bit different to other countries. For example we have both first past the post (FPP) and single transferable vote (STV) systems, and in most cases there is a mix of voting systems used in the same set of ballot papers.

Cost

It is too early to tell what the trial will cost. The councils need to see the full set of requirements and then call for proposals from providers of online voting technology.

Councils that are taking part in the trial will be paying for the online voting system themselves. The participating councils plan to work together to choose one provider to keep the costs of the trial as low as possible for their communities. They may also approach other organisations involved in the elections, such as district health boards, regional councils and licensing trusts to help with the cost.

Central government will not directly fund the trial, however, they will make staff with expertise in local government, elections and information technology (including security) available free of charge.

LGNZ and SOLGM will also not provide any funding but will be making their staff available to help.

Experience of online voting

Online voting is used successfully in many places overseas – including New South Wales, some places in America, Estonia, Canada, and a number of other countries.  To prepare for taking part in the trial, the nine councils have looked at what has happened overseas and are applying lessons learned to our online voting trial.

In New Zealand, online elections have been used to elect members of various producer boards (including Fonterra), companies and iwi authorities. Online voting is also used to conduct the membership component of elections to the Labour Party, and to conduct the ranking of Green Party list candidates.