Sunday, October 27, 2019

Improving Elections Digitally

New Zealand just had another round of local elections with turnouts so low that it makes the link between elections and the democratic mandate of those elected tenuous at best. Predictably this has led to another round of looking at online voting as the solution to the lack of engagement with local politics. Which is a bit like using a sledgehammer for home repair - it might be possible but there’s a better chance you’ll just accelerate the demolition of your house.


Most technologists who have some understanding of the issues agree that online voting is bordering on impossible to make as secure as should be expected for a key part of modern democratic society. Unfortunately the popular discourse around electronic voting is being quickly reduced down to the debate between citizens who want voting to be as easy as online shopping versus the stereotypical IT professional who keeps freaking about security. Everyone is frustrated because to one side online voting seems obvious while the other is telling them they can’t have it with neither side really looking at other options.
Some of the onus is on technologists to describe how we can help improve the structures in which we live. So here are some of my thoughts on both the current challenges and changes that could be made to help improve electoral engagement without resorting to online voting. Many of these ideas have had parts implemented at times by smaller groups, but I believe they need the support of government to realise their potential benefit.

The Challenges

STV is a great electoral system that unfortunately also requires a fairly deep understanding of an election for the public to engage with. While the vote for Mayor may not be too hard to understand the tradeoffs involved in something like a DHB (District Health Board) election where over 20 people may be vying for 7 seats makes it difficult for the voter to know what their vote may lead to. Solutions need to make it easier to engage with this complexity and easier for voters feel confident that their vote will not lead to an unwanted result.
Local news has steadily become less well funded and less well read. While in the past there could be an assumption about how engaged people were with their local news and community this has steadily decreased as digital systems lead to people having connections and relationships that are less tightly tied to the physical location. Any approach to voter engagement must acknowledge these changes as reality rather than trying to turn back the clock to the days when everyone bought the local paper.
These challenges also play deeply into inequalities already present in society. Research in the US has demonstrated that in most cases the goals for improving equitable access to democracy have to include lowering the cognitive load of engaging with the electoral system and working out who has policies that will benefit you. There are also some findings that just improving access, such as through online voting, doesn’t help with improving the diversity of those engaging with democratic processes.

Some Potential Changes

Move candidate information online as a primary source

One of the limitations of the current system is that everyone gets their candidate statement printed out in a tiny little booklet that’s hard to browse. By the time someone has finished stating their hobbies, marital status, how much they care about the local community and that one scholarship they got that one time, there’s about a sentence left for policy. Moving online first opens up the space for candidates to share as much or as little as they want, which is necessary for people to be able to make informed decisions about their policies.
There’s also the benefit of making it so that those who can afford marketing and content writing have less of an inherent advantage. The new mayor of wellington Andy Foster managed to put an entire website online while most candidates were doing well if they managed to direct people to their facebook page.
Policy Local by the Spinoff did some good work in this direction but the simple limitations of their readership demographics and audience both means information on the platform won’t get to the broader public and that answers will be targeted to the Spinoff’s demographic.

Capture answers from candidates in a consistent way on issues that are key to voters

A few years ago I remember talking to Meg Howie about the Askaway Project for the 2014 election which set out to capture common questions from voters and then send them to political parties for answers, engagement was very high for a project that mostly spun out of a university paper. If a system like this for capturing common questions and keeping the answers in a public place can exist in parallel to the voting statement it becomes easier for people to find out

Keep Voting Records Alongside Candidate Profiles

For incumbent candidates it should be easy for voters to see how they’ve voted historically in the context of what they’re saying in their candidate statement. This just needs to be a link but it’s so deeply important that engaging with politics be easy. Not everyone will follow the information through but the option being there will improve both accountability and the feeling of powerlessness that comes from trying to make voting decisions off vague candidate statements.

Allow voters to select the candidates they’d prefer within the system as they’re searching

The same as in your favourite online shopping cart let people start favoriting and ordering their potential candidates as they work through the system and read profiles. For a ranked voting system it makes a lot of sense to be able to drag and drop your candidates up and down a list while you’re reading their profiles and comparing policies. You might transfer your votes to paper at the end, but flexibility makes it easier to really think about how you’re configuring your candidate list.

Create links for voters and organisations to share their preferred votes

People will still have difficulty getting through all the information on their own, so being able to share their thoughts is important. Often voters have a few top preferences and then don’t care too much about the middle of the pack while wanting to avoid a few candidates that they disagree with. If voters can share or copy from other people that they know have similar views then they’ll have more confidence that they’re not accidentally voting in someone they’d hate but just haven’t dug deep enough to find that out.
The concern with this kind of approach is that you’ll end up with a situation like that time the Australians accidentally elected the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party. But I think that can always be taken as a reflection of an election where voters were genuinely unhappy with the major parties. It certainly created the appropriate wake up call when a small party got elected simply by not enough people knowing enough about them to move them down their list.

Add a no election option for votes on positions where Crown appointment is possible

This isn’t really a digitally enabled option but it is one I’ve seen used to good effect by the Hugo awards for science fiction (which will be hosted in Wellington next year). I’m particularly thinking for DHB elections where there is a large collection of candidates for a lot of positions and the Crown often appoints members as well. There will be reasonable situations where voters would prefer to increase Crown appointments rather than fill all available slots with the available candidates.

Handling the move away from postal services

There is still the problem to handle of the postal service becoming steadily more inconvenient as an electoral mechanism. A better mechanism than being fully online will likely be the adoption of some kind of voting station (particularly around metropolitan areas), an obvious way to make this more convenient would be for users to be able to transfer their preselected votes to the machine via mobile (such as with a QR code) and verify them on site.
Some people will insist that that verification happens on a paper receipt while others may be comfortable with digital voting so long as it’s a closed system. Either way it’s still a long way from opening voting up to the wider internet and the multitudes of bots, viruses, and creepy uncles that might have access to your home computer.
(This article originally posted on the Ackama blog)

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