Friday, February 08, 2013

Democracy in the mail

What will happen to democracy as post offices die?

Last week, I wrote about a suggestion that New Zealand Post might cut back residential mail delivery to three days a week. I noted then that “drastic change is inevitable”. Surprisingly, though, I hadn’t considered the impact of this on the democratic process.

Writing on the Election Academy blog of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, Doug Chapin notes, “the impact is especially keen in the elections field, where growing reliance on vote-by-mail and absentee ballots has made election officials and the Post Office partners in the delivery and receipt of ballots.”

In the USA, Washington state and Oregon have gone completely mail-only. Some 40% of voters in California—which has more voters than any other state—were postal voters in 2010.

Here in New Zealand, local government elections are conducted entirely by mail, and sometimes referenda are, too, like the infamous rightwing pro-smacking referendum in 2009 (the link is the source of the photo above). It will be extremely difficult to get ballots out to all 3,079,754 enrolled voters in New Zealand (as at 31 January 2013; link to current stats) with enough time for them to fill out the ballots and post them back before the deadline.

Chapin wrote that Oregon is looking at posting election materials earlier, and that’s clearly what Elections New Zealand would have to do, too. They would also have to increase the number of secure locations for people to drop off their completed ballots. This option is proving increasingly popular in Washington State.

But it seems to me that the decline of the increasingly antique postal system ought to spur development of a 21st Century solution for elections, too. People moan all the time about how online voting can “never” be safe enough, or free of fraud, but that’s utter nonsense. People rely on Internet banking to conduct their daily lives, so it’s absurd to say that we can’t come up with an online electoral system that’s at least as safe and secure as that.

Overall, voter fraud is pretty rare. In the US, postal ballots are far more likely to be rejected than in-person ballots, but that’s due primarily to errors, poor handwriting, etc., and not suspected fraud. We can expect mistakes to be the leading cause of rejection of online voting, too.

I’ll admit that if I lived in the US I’d be highly suspicious of any move toward online voting, too—there’s a very high incentive for people to manipulate the results for political gain. But the fact that there are corrupt politicians or corrupt voters doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of people are honest and would embrace online voting if given the chance. Build in the safeguards, make sure the whole process is open, transparent and well-documented, and there’s no reason it can’t be as safe and reliable as postal voting, or even in-person voting.

Maybe the slow death of postal systems will be the shove that governments need to come up with a modern, 21st Century voting system that includes online voting in the mix. If so, that will be one good result.


Roger Green said...

I worry about hacking, cyberterrorism and the like, from Anonymous to China. There are more ways to screw up computer systems and far fewer people who know how to prevent it.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

Yeah, but I refuse to accept that that those bright folks who have already created so many Internet wonders can't create a safe, secure voting system. Even so, there are no guarantees about ANY system—even current systems. They all rely on computers for counting votes and they can theoretically be hacked or manipulated.