As part of our LGIU@40 programme we are asking senior decision makers to ask the challenging questions about how we might do things differently in the next 40 years for local government. Although this provocation piece only briefly touches on cyber security and vote verification, it is crucial to come up with innovative approaches to simplify and render more cost-efficient participation in democratic processes and provide easier voter access fit for the 21st century.
What if we had electronic voting?
Western Australian Local Government elections are generally conducted by post. Under this system, ballot papers are sent to each person on the electoral roll, with information about the candidates and a reply-paid envelope. When this system was introduced in 1996, the internet was in its infancy and postal voting was viewed as a way to increase voter turnout. That is, it was considered far easier to put a letter in the mailbox than attend a local government’s office to vote in person.
However, the past 25 years have seen dramatic changes in the way we communicate. In Western Australia, the frequency of mail deliveries has been reduced and boxes for mail posting have been removed as Australia Post pivots towards parcel deliveries associated with online shopping.
This has created two particular problems for the postal voting system. First, the system’s capacity to deal with large mailouts at a single point in time is changing and, second, the time taken to deliver mail is increasing. The result has been that people are receiving their ballot papers much closer to election day and have a much smaller window in which to complete their ballot and ensure it is returned before the poll closes.
In response to these challenges, the Western Australian Local Government Act has just been amended to both close enrolments and close candidate nominations one week earlier and, consequently, provide more time for the postal election process. While these legislative amendments will provide slightly more time for the postal election process, it could be argued that they simply ‘paper over the cracks’ which are currently apparent with postal elections as society moves away from posting letters.
To ensure the electoral system’s currency and increase voter participation, it is surely time to introduce a system of electronic voting. With so many transactions undertaken electronically these days, including financial transactions using Internet banking, it is amazing that there has been no change to the electoral process. If so many people are prepared to trust Internet banking with their ‘hard-earned’ monies, wouldn’t these people be willing to embrace electronic voting at the Local Government level?
Of course, an electronic voting system could still allow for in-person voting for those unwilling, or unable, to use technology – just as the current postal voting system also allows in-person voting in Western Australia. However, an electronic system provides people with the opportunity to vote in the same way that they undertake many, if not most, of their other transactions – electronically.
Such a system would support electoral engagement with younger generations who effectively ‘live on their phone’ and whose participation in Local Government elections is often limited. It also makes participation easier as there is no need to find a post box for the ballot paper envelope. Making administrative processes easier is a great way to encourage increased participation.
However, electronic voting will not only enhance participation; it will also bring cost savings and environmental benefits. In terms of the former, while there will be costs incurred in establishing an electronic voting system, once established, transactional costs effectively disappear and the ever-increasing cost of posting letters is avoided.
From an environmental perspective, electronic voting obviates the need to use paper to support the electoral process and then to transport this paper to and from electors physically.
Of course, electronic voting is not a new concept. It is used in a multitude of electoral processes currently, including corporate board and union elections. With voting being a key element of community participation, let’s adapt electronic voting processes to Local Government elections and establish a voting system which really does encourage participation.
Ian Cowie is the Chief Executive of City of Gosnells, one of the largest local governments in Western Australia. He is the recipient of the Public Service Medal, The PSM recognises outstanding service by public servants.