Legal Beagle by Graeme Edgeler

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Legal Beagle: Tastes like democracy

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  • Graeme Edgeler,

    P.S. I avoided making too much of an argument above. As well as having thoughts on topic, you might also have thoughts on the shorter post length :-)

    Wellington, New Zealand • Since Nov 2006 • 3184 posts Report Reply

  • Stephen Judd,

    That's an angle I hadn't thought of. But yes: voting is an important ritual.

    I'm against any plans for internet voting. Partly because of the very severe technological challenges in constructing a secure system, but mostly because it will totally destroy faith in the outcome.

    Right now, if enough people don't trust the system, in theory all the votes can be counted and recounted until they do. And every individual vote can be inspected. And any fool can look at a ballot paper.

    In a purely electronic system, disputes boil down to competing experts saying "trust me." Although there are ways to make is possible to verify what code is running on what hardware, and to make votes auditable, only a very few people are qualified to implement them, and even fewer people can get them right. I doubt if NZ has even one judge who has sufficent technical ability to follow the kinds of evidence that would need to be presented. A jury would need advanced maths degrees.

    Think about everything we hear now about viruses, Trojans, so-called "zombie" PCs. Suppose that, say, the Chinese secret police wish to interfere with our vote. What a marvellous range of options there are for them. They could compromise your PC. Perhaps your computer will vote, but the wrong party will be transmitted. Perhaps you will get a nice "thank for you for your vote" but no vote will be transmitted. Perhaps a bunch of "zombies" will simply take down the central server that records votes. Etc etc.

    Now suppose that some of that activity was detected. Once it was known, how much faith would you have in the replacement election we would then have to have? Which presumably would be running on the same system that just crapped out?

    Whatever the financial savings in such a system, to me they can't outweigh the loss of the public trust.

    I'm all for electronic counting of paper votes, like they do in Brazil. That speeds up the process a lot. But in that system there's always a paper trail, and the paper votes are primary.

    Interesting background here.

    Note: this is my professional business, and such a scheme would provide lots of work for my industry. I still think it's a really bad idea.

    Internet voting doesn't really fix anything that's wrong with the current system, and introduces a whole lot of issues of it's own. Let's kill the idea with extreme scorn before it gets traction, please.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 3119 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    We vote because we think we should. Because when we were younger our parents took us with them when they were voting and it was solemn and seemed important. We vote because there's one day ever three years when voting is what you do – what everyone does.

    Amen. My earliest memory of my parents voting is when I was 10; and yes, even in a not-political family, it seemed momentous. This year, our older boy is on the roll, but will miss out on eligibility to vote by about seven months. I'd have loved to have helped him towards his own decision.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22182 posts Report Reply

  • Paul Campbell,

    My eldest is in the same situation - it's a good incentive to get him involved in this election even if he wont be able to vote this time around. In the past we've always taken our kids to vote (in the US it was about twice a year ...)

    One thing that's great about voting in NZ is that it's wonderfully low tech - it can still be counted by hand (and, as important, recounted if required). It's simple, it works and in the process it gets ordinary people involved with maikng it happen.

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 2544 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Ranapia,

    That's an angle I hadn't thought of. But yes: voting is an important ritual.

    Yes, and for the hysterical vapourings from various quarters, we are going to hold a free and fair election. Iif a change of Government is the outcome then it's not going to be changed at the point of a gun.

    All too easy to take that for granted, but I know a few ex-pats from Fiji, South Africa and Zimbabwe (as well as descendants of Polish refugees who came here after World War II) who have very personal reasons for not being so complacent.

    Internet voting abandons this. And the 'convenience' just isn't worth it.

    Again, ITA. And, just to play devil's advocate, it's not as if we actually make it particularly 'inconvenient' to register and vote. I may be totally off beam here (and if I'm wrong, certain someone will correct me) but my understanding is that New Zealand is pretty liberal when it comes to registration, casting absentee/early ballots etc. I was poll watching thee years ago, and I found it rather amusing how many people were coming with ID, and mildly shocked to have it waved away. Nor did I notice any particular frustration at people having to stand in line for, at most, ten minutes during peak times. (I was at one of the busier booths in North Shore Electorate.) To the contrary, there were plenty of people having a gossip with friends and neighbours they were on line with.

    On balance, I actually think we've got the balance about right. Why try and 'fix' something that isn't really broken? And if your parliamentary democracy isn't worth standing in line for a few minutes, once every three years, you don't bloody deserve it.

    North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 12355 posts Report Reply

  • Tom Semmens,

    Voting day to be a public holiday along the lines of Xmas Day, to ensure everyone has the opportunity to vote. And it should come complete with various celebrations of democracy.

    Sevilla, Espana • Since Nov 2006 • 2120 posts Report Reply

  • Paul Campbell,

    I think one of the great things about NZ's way of doing things is that not only is enrollment required but the govt goes out of its way to make it easy - using Post Office change of address forms is a brilliantly easy solution to this (whoever thought of that so many years ago deserves his name on some public monument)

    Contrast this with the US where selective voter enrollment and suppression is part of electoral tactics - there "motor voter" laws (enrolling people when they get/change their drivers licenses) are controversial

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 2544 posts Report Reply

  • steven crawford,

    Because it feels like democracy.

    I don't know enough about digital technology to say if its practical or not, for creating virtual election booths. For aesthetic reasons, I prefer analog
    for the voting. From an artists perspective, I see the value of cinema, in comparison with TV. Its not so much about the technology, than the Human fellowship. We go to the cinema to watch virtual reality together.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 3828 posts Report Reply

  • Paul Rowe,

    I remember it pouring with rain in 1981, when my parents went to my local school to cast their votes. Strangely enough, my first vote in a constuency would have been one of the MMP polls - does 1992 sound right? Like yours Graham, my first vote would have been a special vote as I was at Uni at the time.

    I agree with your ritual angle, though hadn't thought about it so much. Making the trek to NZ House in London to cast a special vote came into that too. For that reason I am not in favour of postal voting on a large scale either. If you want to vote, and can do so, then make the effort to get out.

    I think holding elections on a Saturday is part of it too. It was a bit of a pain trying to get to the polling booth in South East London on the way to work, but I couldn't be sure I'd get back to my constituecy by 7pm afterwards, so it had to be done.

    Lake Roxburgh, Central Ot… • Since Nov 2006 • 574 posts Report Reply

  • Raymond A Francis,

    No problem with longer posts Graeme

    I like the New Zealand feel and formality of the peresent system
    All my votes have been in small country schools (Poolburn, Waihaorunga and Waihao Downs) usually with not many others present
    Check of name and behind the screen to do my civic duty
    And always wondering if I did check the correct name or did it back to front (Ticks and crosses)
    My wife has been the Official Returning Officer or something like that so i always went when their were no crowds so we could have a catch up as it can be a long day
    If it works and can be seen to work and can be proved to work so why change it

    45' South • Since Nov 2006 • 572 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Ranapia,

    And one might think that if there was some casual relationship between "convenience" and voter turn out, then our local body elections wouldn't be more depressing than the turn-out at those American presidential ones we love to ever so smugly sneer at. :) Can't really see how you can get any more 'convenient' than having two weeks to put an envelope in the nearest mailbox.

    North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 12355 posts Report Reply

  • Steve Reeves,

    Elections are run in the same way in the UK too---schools, mainly, are used as the polling stations. As many have said above, the community feel and the calm, quiet and friendly atmosphere is hard to beat.

    But, in the UK, elections are always held on a Thursday, so, as school kids, with a polling station on site, we always got the day off school for elections (both local and national and EU)---that's what really instils a love of our democratic process (and probably teachers welcomed the opportunity to catch-up with work too!)

    Near Donny Park, Hamilton… • Since Apr 2007 • 94 posts Report Reply

  • Don Christie,

    I can't comment on specifics of this article but I will give an anecdote.

    At the last election my daughter was 6. She put a lot of effort into understanding what all the bill boards were about, what an election was about, even the main policy thrusts of all the parties.

    So, when we turned up at her school to vote she was ready. Waiting patiently in the queue for her turn to express her democratic right.

    Only thing was our democracy was not ready for her. I had no idea that she was planning to vote until she asked the polling station officer, who also happened to be her teacher, for a ballot paper. Her disappointment that day will live with me for a while and I very much hope that when she is able to cast her vote the drama, sense of occasion and sense of civic duty will remain as Graeme describes it.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 1645 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole,

    my understanding is that New Zealand is pretty liberal when it comes to registration

    Not really. Not registering is an offence, and people do, from time-to-time, get fined for it. Given that there's no obligation to actually vote, being required to register is a pretty minimal imposition.

    As to the opening post, I'm split on the issue. A friend and I were discussing 'net voting the other night, and in a matter of minutes our two minds were able to sketch up the basics of a system that would ensure authentication of voters and also a secret vote: authenticate to one system, which then passes you on with a random time delay to another system on which you actually cast the votes. It would be possible to correlate votes and voters, theoretically, but the random delay would make it non-trivial. And it's far more secret than the situation in some of the small rural polling stations where a handful of people vote.
    The catch is the verification of votes. It's all back on a system that must, by necessity, be absolutely secure. If that security fails in any way, the entire poll is suspect. It's all very well for electronic voting machines to be verifiable, but they're fairly easy to secure by locking and sealing them and removing any network connection. An internet voting system, by definition, must be connected to the internet.

    I like the openness of NZ's system. I like that if I could be bothered I could watch the counting at my local polling station. I can be absolutely certain of the validity of the count, and that's comforting. If there's a dispute, the ballot papers can be counted again. A point on which I had several arguments with one of the "Direct Democracy" crowd on usenet, several years ago, was their insistence that it's good enough to have a closed system that can only be inspected by "certified" persons. The proposal was that the code be proprietary, uninspectable by the majority, even by Jo(e) Coder who probably knows more about writing secure code than the people who produced it. That was just wrong to me. Democracy dies in secret, the saying goes, and for something like that it's absolutely true. If secrecy is required to count the ballots, then something is wrong with the process.

    The flip side, though, is that computer-based systems make it easier for disabled people to cast their vote for themselves. The blind can use a screen reader in the privacy of their own home. Tetraplegics and others who cannot use their hands can use their head pointers or whatever they use in the privacy of their own home. They're not compelled to reveal their choice to another person in order to exercise their democratic right. That's the biggest argument in favour of going to internet voting, and it's pretty compelling. However, the security and validity issues are massive.

    Auckland • Since Mar 2007 • 4090 posts Report Reply

  • Gareth Ward,

    The sense of democracy as a community undertaking would be lost if we were able to stagger the election over two weeks.

    Yes it would be, but it's not necessarily a crucial ingredient of democracy. A nice ingredient, but not crucial.

    I very much doubt there would be more than a minimal effect on voter turnout, and I wouldn't be surprised if the decline in civil society I think it would precipitate actually lead to decreased interest from the politically disinclined.

    And this is what the trial would presumedly be about - is the turnout (perhaps the most important part of representative democracy?) that much improved that we wear the downsides?

    But on the secret vote thing - again, it's a nice part of it all, but I don't believe it is so critical to democracy that it has to be enforced for every vote in an election. Covered booths with computers should be maintained to give a choice but not enforced.
    And tempting as it may be, voting shouldn't be restricted to those "who can bother and don't value convenience over electoral importance" - it's for everyone, unfortunately including those whose drive to vote is overcome by the prospect of a 20min walk down the road.

    Personally I imagine the trial may not find enough of an increased turnout to warrant the change (although perhaps by 2017 we will), but to my mind the negatives are not so strong as to outweigh even a slight increase in participation and freedom to vote how you want.

    Auckland, NZ • Since Mar 2007 • 1727 posts Report Reply

  • Emma Hart,

    The catch is the verification of votes...If there's a dispute, the ballot papers can be counted again... The flip side, though, is that computer-based systems make it easier for disabled people to cast their vote for themselves...

    Um, yeah. Exactly what Matthew said, this is pretty much what was going through my head as I was reading.

    We always take our kids to the polling booth with us, and they're really looking forward to being able to vote themselves. I've never been in a situation where getting to a polling booth was a struggle, which I think is important. Voting on Saturdays just seems so obvious.

    I have to say, though, that I wouldn't have bothered voting in the last local bodies if it wasn't a postal vote. I'd hate to be working through that booklet while in the booth.

    Christchurch • Since Nov 2006 • 4613 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart,

    Can't really see how you can get any more 'convenient' than having two weeks to put an envelope in the nearest mailbox.

    In fact, I found that I voted at the last minute in local elections precisely because I had two weeks to put an envelope in the mailbox; most of my flatmates didn't vote at all. (Okay, "most" where two were not New Zealand citizens, but two out of three who could have, didn't, and the one who did, did because I sat him down and loomed until he got it done.) I strongly suspect that you'd get much better turnout if the timeframe was limited or, even better, people actually had to turn up to a polling booth. But we don't take local body elections seriously enough for those things to happen.

    But on the secret vote thing - again, it's a nice part of it all, but I don't believe it is so critical to democracy that it has to be enforced for every vote in an election. Covered booths with computers should be maintained to give a choice but not enforced.

    As much as I hate slippery slope arguments in general, I think this is a problem for precisely that reason; the moment you make voting less than secret, you open it up to intimidation and coercion, whether it's from partners, family, friends, or polling booth workers. When voting is entirely secret, then your vote is entirely between you and your conscience, which is how it should be. That privacy is critically important to getting people's real opinions out there.

    And as for electronic voting, the security problems are so overwhelming I don't think they'll ever be fixed - hell, look at all the problems the US has with verifying voting by computer on-site, let alone over the net. It's like putting a sign up inviting people to interfere in your elections, whether for political gain or because they're bored. Why would you do that?

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2105 posts Report Reply

  • Stephen Judd,

    "Covered booths with computers should be maintained to give a choice but not enforced."

    Why don't you want people to know how you voted, comrade Gareth?

    In the benign circumstances we currently enjoy this may not bother you, but I regard secrecy as essential.

    If it comes to that, many of that small group of disabled people who would benefit might have quite different opinions to their caregivers...

    It also strikes me that you don't seem worried about the integrity of such a system. Could you explain why?

    (Non-secret ballots do pose fewer problems for automation than secret ones, but even in a non-secret ballot, the system ought to provide a receipt. Now, what if the receipt says the wrong thing? How will you repudiate the vote so you can have another go? If your vote is challenged, how will we prove your receipt is genuine? If there are no receipts, how can we audit the system?)

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 3119 posts Report Reply

  • Gareth Ward,

    I strongly suspect that you'd get much better turnout if the timeframe was limited

    Agree with this - perhaps the vote should be "offered" on =]

    Re, secrecy - I can see the threats of coercion etc (although a polling booth hasn't done Zimbabwe much good on that front) but am yet to be convinced (please, give it a go!) that enforced secrecy is a critical ingredient of democratic elections?

    Auckland, NZ • Since Mar 2007 • 1727 posts Report Reply

  • Gareth Ward,

    Stephen re integrity of the system - my view is entirely predicated on a demonstratably secure process. This is a first principle - if it can't be met, whole thing gets binned.

    Auckland, NZ • Since Mar 2007 • 1727 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    If you even try to look at whom someone is voting for in a polling place you can go to prison for two years. That's four times longer than the maximum penalty for a candidate who destroys ballot papers (a pet peeve of mine with our electoral law).

    There's a couple of penalties that we got around the wrong way, surely. If I close my eyes, grab your ballot paper, and set it on fire, then I'm down for 6 months, but if I open my eyes and leave it alone, it's 2 years?

    I too like our voting tradition. Election day feels like one of those days with so much anticipation, where nothing really much happens. I have no idea why some countries vote on a week day, that seems stupid to me, for many reasons.

    I've never been overseas for an election, so the only question I'd have about internet voting would be for people in more obscure areas of the world. Voting might be physically possible in London, but what about parts of South America, Africa, Asia etc? If you're not near an embassy, how easy is it to vote? Maybe it could be limited to people overseas?

    Since Nov 2006 • 6241 posts Report Reply

  • steven crawford,

    OH, I almost forgot. My friend Stephan, was infuriated during the last local body elections, when he discovered his partner had cast his postal vote on his behalf. His partner assumed they where being helpful had voted incongruently to Stephan ideology, without realizing that Stephan is a people pleaser and would agree with other peoples political opinions, rather that risk confrontation or abandonment. Consequently, Stephan was inadvertently robbed of the vote. And he doesn't want the authorities to know that it was his partner that violated the law, because he know there wasn't any malicious intent.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 3828 posts Report Reply

  • George Darroch,

    if your parliamentary democracy isn't worth standing in line for a few minutes, once every three years, you don't bloody deserve it.

    Absolutely. There's a truism in marketing that if you lower the price of something, the value of that item to the purchaser goes down. Now I'm glad that registering and voting is easy. But to reduce it to a click of the mouse from my living room would be to lower the current purchase cost which involves participating/performing with other people, to almost nothing.

    WLG • Since Nov 2006 • 2264 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,


    I don't mind long posts. I like reading especially if it's interesting and as your posts are and full of stuff I don't know.

    Voting must be secret.

    Therefore everything Greame said is exactly right.

    I'd much prefer election day to be the one day a year when all the shops shut and yes of course it should be a public "holiday".

    Yes voting should be a community and social activity.

    If electronic voting can be audited then why the hell not use it. But at the moment I'm not sure it can be audited as well as paper, although banks seem to manage. So let's stick with paper until the experts are happy with it. But paper or electronic it must be secret and hence needs to be at a location where that secrecy of choice can be assured.

    For most people there are two opportunities to directly be involved in democracy - voting and jury duty. Both activities should be treated with respect and honoured. Both activities should be community focussed and the decision making process must be confidential.


    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4335 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole,

    And as for electronic voting, the security problems are so overwhelming I don't think they'll ever be fixed - hell, look at all the problems the US has with verifying voting by computer on-site

    A lot of the problems the US has stem from the fact that their implementation was poorly-planned, driven largely by the vendors of the "solution", and rushed. By allowing the likes of Diebold (who vacated the election machine space last year, because it was just too much of a headache and because their original business of ATMs and physical security was much more lucrative) to drive it all, they ensured from the get-go that they were fucked.
    Compare the time-lines. The NZ CEO started looking at internet voting in 2006. They're discussing a limited trial in 2014, doubtless after a lot of thought and investigation, and discussions with Census over how to handle some of the logistics. It might be rolled out for the complete general election in 2023. That's 17 years, and it's a maybe. In the US there were problems with the 2000 election and now, eight years later, they've got nationwide utilisation of a solution that barely existed at the time. As I said, rushed.

    Also, look at the nonsense around security. When you have people such as Professor Ed Felten (whose name may not mean much to thread contributors here, but who's a big name in security research) getting sued for daring to challenge Sequoia Voting Systems over their proprietary e-voting machines you know that something's really fucking wrong[tm]. We will probably use a home-grown system. It won't be written by commercial vendors who believe that absolute secrecy is the only way they can make money. Hopefully it'll be done under an open source licence, and released onto the 'net for scrutiny by the masses. NZ has sufficient numbers of clueful coders to give any such system (which should be fairly simple, too) a thorough vetting. Felten and Bruce Schnier and other security luminaries would probably look at it too, to hold it up as an example for their own wayward government on how e-voting should really be conducted.

    I don't buy the security argument as a big reason not to do internet voting here. Security can be done. Verification of the vote is by far the biggest concern for me. If something goes wrong (computers are notorious for attracting Murphy!), how do you re-validate the results if it's all ephemeral?

    Auckland • Since Mar 2007 • 4090 posts Report Reply

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