I return, not with a wholly original take, but rather with an important rebuttal of one Martyn Bradbury.

A little context: This is a man who, once upon a time, was someone I looked up to. (Back when radio was still a thing and he ran a youth talkback show) Politically our opinions have diverged a lot while we both retain the same core philosophy. We both agree that large political institutions aren’t working for regular people and we both like inspiring radicals who want to end those problems, like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn. I remain a Green, wheras I’m not sure Martyn has ever really decided if he believes in any particular political party, as I recall him supporting just about every Party to the left of United Future at one point or another, and it tends to be based on whichever one is opposing the current target of his indignation.

But in addition to his occasional forays into conspiracy theory and poorly founded political opinion, Martyn has now signed up for the “unite or die” philosophy on voting in trying to get people to change the government. While it is good to have him off the TOP cheerleading bandwagon now that he’s checked up on them and realised they intend to sit on the cross-benches rather than actually try to change the government, as usual he’s going about trying to convince people in entirely the wrong way. Those of you who have read other posts know my firm conviction that your vote is yours to decide what to do with, (even if I don’t like that decision, or even if you decide not to vote) and that neither parties nor pundits should be trying to bully anyone into giving it away to someone they’re not comfortable voting for, rather their duty is to earn your vote.

For a supporter of Sanders and Corbyn, Bradbury hasn’t got that left-wing movements tend to change governments by inspiring people. Left-wing voters want to fall in love with an idea, it’s right-wing voters, steeped in authoritarian values, who are more responsive to fear as a motivating force, which is why they’ve united around National and successfully turned out in large numbers whenever it’s looked like Labour is going to beat them enough with their tired, uninspring policies to get back into government. It of course doesn’t help that Labour has had a serious case of too many chiefs, but that’s a discussion not directly relevant to this post.

Bradbury is calling for people to “get over” their distaste with Labour’s tone on immigration, (and yes, it’s the tone, not the policy itself, that is the problem: voters are still looking at them like they’re trying to ape NZ First, because quite honestly, that seems to be the intention) and vote for a party that will change the government anyway, and dismissing all the critics as twitter liberals1. That’s a terrible pitch.

Firstly, if you want a party that’s left-wing but doesn’t hate immigrants, you have one choice that we’re sure will make it into Parliament, and that’s the Greens. They have an unabashedly pro-immigrant policy, but they also make a concession to the reality that the infrastructure necessary to support the amount of immigrants that want to go to Auckland will need some time to build up after National’s neglect, and so immigration settings will probably need to be a bit more selective2, while still having a policy that supports the rights of the new kiwis that are already here and the ones we plan to let in. You can also cross your fingers and party vote Mana, but personally I wouldn’t recommend the risk that until you’re sure Hone is coming back.

Yes, the Greens haven’t been out there tooting a liberal left-wing radical trumpet. This is a deliberate campaigning strategy they have been maintaining for several terms now, despite being just as liberal and just as left-wing as when Sue Bradford thought she could win the co-leader race. (and yes, many Greens would still welcome her back if she wanted to come) The fact is that running a moderate campaign that focuses on popular liberal and environmental messages has worked for the Greens, so they’re playing nice with Labour while focusing on the areas that have worked for them in the past, and trying to differentiate themselves from New Zealand First and Labour without burning any bridges. It’s a tough balance to juggle and I don’t envy James or Metiria their jobs in maintaining it. The fact is, however, that this is still a party with a policy package that is pretty damn left wing. They unapologetically support any liberal cause you could like, and they want to raise benefits, move towards a UBI system, legalise cannabis, and you know, basically hit every populist issue that’s out there. It’s hard to get further to the left than I am, and I whole-heartedly endorse their policies for this election, and believe that their candidates are committed to them and would do everything they can to advocate those policies in government. (or if necessary, from opposition)

If you’re okay with the immigration rhetoric and subtly dogwhistling to the less racially sensitive parts of NZ and are cool with voting for Labour, great. But don’t try and bully people into being okay by telling them they don’t have options. They do. I’ve heard from enough people uncomfortable with Labour’s positioning that even if they all didn’t like the Greens, they could probably get Mana in off the list if they all co-ordinated, campaigned, and voted for them.

And to those in Labour who aren’t comfortable with the rhetoric but also don’t want to leave because they are doggedly loyal, or because they actually like a centrist brand of politics, or because Labour has historically been good to their Māori or Pasifika community: The criticism isn’t aimed at you, and I wish you all the best in convincing the party not to engage in racist rhetoric in the future. But until that change in rhetoric eventuates, I’m not going to recommend anyone vote for your party, even if they’re not comfortable with their other options, because you can’t earn my respect this way.

New Zealand is a nation forged by an alliance between Māori and immigrants, and only a party that knows better than to betray that constitutional principle of our country has earned any co-operation from me or people like me. And that principle that immigrants willing to come here, work hard, and honour the people of the land should all be welcome is a core part of who we are. We can say we need some time to be able to provide immigrants we welcome in with an acceptable standard of living, (and it’s okay for us to use our own definition of acceptable there, rather than “whatever will still get people immigrating here,” because we as voters are the judges of what the kiwi standard of life should be) but closing the borders entirely, or pandering to people’s racial anxieties, strikes me as a fundamentally stupid idea.

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Lots of people in politics are fans of using the political compass system to describe politics, where we distinguish politics along two dimensions when talking about political ideologies instead of conflating both social and economic policy together in different ways for each nation when we pick the two words we use to describe political parties. This is especially helpful in systems like New Zealand, where we have 7 viable political parties at the moment. (assuming you define “viability” as “getting at least one MP elected”)

Some recent discussions have made me aware that not only are some people a little less familiar with the labels that discussing politics this way requires, but that we’re also missing a few relevant terms.

traditional poltical compass

Traditional political terms have largely focused on left-right or liberal-conservative divides

Usually this splits political dimensions into the economic/class aspect and the social/cultural aspect of politics. On this blog, I general refer to the left-right economic dimension of politics, and the liberal-conservative social dimension. It’s also sometimes called a “libertarian-authoritarian” social dimension, but both of these terms imply a lot more radical and specific political ideologies than liberal and conservative do, so I’m usually a fan of those names.

The original political compass site only gives us the most basic five: centrism, leftism, right-wing politics, “libertarianism,” (which in other sites is often substituted for “liberalism”) and “authoritarianism.” (likewise for “conservatism”) For a useful discussion, you really need at least nine labels for the various political positions, and if you want to get really technical, you probably want somewhere between 25 and 30 to try to translate the idea of a graph into colloquial language, even online.

It also doesn’t capture some complicated political variables that also operate on something of a spectrum, like degrees of nationalism, or of environmentalism, or monarchism-vs-republicanism, (or more generally, sovereignty versus independence, or federalism vs local democracy) etc…

Of course, every once in a while, you run into someone using a more specific political dictionary or reference that is technically correct elsewhere in the world, but places these political terms in a more regional context, when most of the political internet settles on using variations of left, right, liberal, and conservative. (sometimes substituting “tory” or “progressive” into the equation) For instance, in the US, liberalism still generally implies moderate right-wind leanings and a gradual approach to social reform. This isn’t anything inherent about the idealogy, it’s just how the democrats that call themselves liberals in the US have conducted themselves in congress. Confusingly, this old definition comes very close to neoliberalism, which is just the modern version of classical liberalism, which is not the same as generic US liberalism, which is generally in the Democratic party, and is also different to the Australian Liberal Party, which is actually to their right. To all of them I say: stop confusing people. When people use “liberal” as an adjective anywhere outside the US or Australia, it’s generally to refer to a freedom-oriented approach to social issues.

With all that confusion, we find ourselves maybe needing some extra terms, because actually we routinely do discuss all 25 spots on our 5×5 table of two-dimensional politics, and less loaded generic terms, as traditional names for complicated areas on that political graph can get you maybe 19 of the 25 really relevant areas, when really we need a full 26 terms to describe what we’re talking about, and they don’t follow any sensible system. (We need 26 because we need two terms for the middle so we can distinguish between the social and economic centre when talking generically, four names for the orthogonal extremes, (ie. right, left, liberal, conservative) four names for the diagonal extremes that mix the previous four together, eight moderate versions of the the eight previous extremes (ala “centre-left”) and another eight names for those with opinions on both dimensions but who value one dimension over the other, such as leftist liberals who value the economic politics more than social ones) The other confusing thing about using the traditional terms is that “liberal” shows up all over them with different meanings. Oh, and we can’t use the term “social” for conservatives, because they hate that word too.

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

generic political compass

Here we have a systematic approach to generic political labels. I have used the word “clutural” to describe people with more socially-oriented politics for international portability. I’ve stuck with “moderate” for the four extra diagonal centrist positions, because mixing “left” or “right” with “centre” in a larger term sounds stupid. The hidden 26th term is that “moderate” refers to social centrism, and “centrist” to economic centrism, re-using the distinction between British terminology for economic dimensions and American terminology for social dimensions that people already engage in. Most sucessful centrists are really only centrist in one of the two ideologies in order to fill a political gap elsewhere, so arguably there are also “conservative centrists,” “left moderates,” “liberal centrists,” etc… that can replace terms like “centre-left” if you prefer.

And yeah, the “circle” around the outside full of liberal-leftists and right-liberalists are a little confusing, I admit, but it could catch on as a way to describe the “north by northeast”-type directions on our political compass. I also considered terms like “right-conservatist,” for the lower half of the graph, but at that point it began to sound silly, as “liberalist” at least sounds like it should be a word, so I left out the quicker alternative names on the bottom half of the chart. (for the short names in the x-by-xy spots, whichever part is first is the one the emphasis is on, so if liberal is first, it’s cultural, and if left or right is first, it’s economic) Feel free to talk about conservative leftists and conservative rightists though instead of cultural left- or right-conservatives, those actually sound like words.

Under these generic terms, you actually have political-compassy ways of describing some more complicated political idealogies. Neoliberals are Right-liberalists. Tories are Right-conservatives. Greens are Left-Liberals. Neoconservatives are Conservative-leftists. Libertarians are (normally) right-liberals, or maybe sometimes they’re Liberal-rightists, and Left-liberatarians are Liberal-leftists, which is what the old Whigs of their day roughly were.

In the New Zealand  political parties context, here are my estimations:

  • Labour are centre-left. (or, if you prefer, a coalition of leftists, liberal-leftists, left-liberalists, and economic left-conservatives that generally average out to somewhere between “centre-left” and “moderate left-liberal”)
  • National are a coalition of right-wingers. (including right-liberalists, and both types of right-conservatives)
  • ACT is a single right-liberalist who nobody takes seriously.
  • United Future is centre-right.
  • The Māori Party is the hardest to place but are probably wander between being moderate left-liberals when working with Labour to being moderate right-liberals when working with National. Somewhat like New Zealand First, they have a nationalist bent to their politics, but it is a specifically Māori one rather than a xenophobic one.
  • New Zealand first are centrist conservatives on most issues, but they can wander into left-wing and liberal politics from time to time too, as their defining political attribute is nationalism rather than economic or social politics.
  • And as everyone expects, both the Greens and Mana are both left-liberals, with the Greens having an environmentalist dimension to their politics, and Mana having a Māori nationalist one.
  • The alliance were probably left-liberalists when they were around, and ironically, the Progressive Party’s brief stint in the Clark era had them probably showing up as economic left-conservatives.

Hopefully people find these ideological distinctions helpful in discussing politics. I hope they also stop people reaching for those archaic variants on the word “liberal,” as politicians everywhere have tried to corner the rhetorical market on derivative words of “freedom.”

So, TVNZ has feverishly reported both that there is a highly unusual emergency meeting being called of the Queen’s staff, and that a representative has told them that “they can safely assume the Queen and Prince Phillip are not dead.” I won’t mock them for reporting that the queen isn’t dead, because it would be irresponsible reporting not to have sought assurance that she wasn’t when reporting about an emergency meeting with an undisclosed purpose.

I am somewhat amused at the generation gap that the New Zealand media still think the Queen is marginally relevant to life in the south pacific. If she dies, we replace her with another figurehead that literally doesn’t do anything important except sign off on the documents when we need to replace a Governor General. It will be sad if she dies, of course, because she is a human being even if I have no real emotional connection to her myself, and it will be newsworthy, because she is a foreign head of state.

But in de facto terms, she is not our head of state, all those functions have been delegated to the Governor General, and they don’t get picked up even during royal visits. In child custody terms, we’ve been all-but-adopted by the Governor General. She is a mere legal fiction to New Zealand, so the appropriate time to cover this sort of story is really when something has actually happened. If she is getting sick or deciding to abdicate powers in favour of her descendents, the only real effect this will have on us under the current arrangement is that we will be obliged to observe some official mourning customs and possibly change the title from “Queen” to “King” on a lot of our official government stuff, and we don’t need to breathlessly preempt that story online simply because of TVNZ has a large audience of baby boomer monarchists. Most of them probably don’t check your website, TVNZ, save it for the 6pm news.

If the meeting is not about a turn in the Queen’s health or a plan to step aside, then it is still timely for New Zealand to consider if we still want to be a monarchy after the Queen dies. A lot of the reason for public support for monarchy is that people like Queen Elizabeth II specifically, rather than the institution of monarchy in general, and there’s a good argument that we should have a plan for what we want to do on her death, even if it’s simply “enact mourning arrangements in the media and with flags, and switch up our letterheads, signs, and coins.”

And if public opinion or the resolve of our leaders is shifting towards republicanism like polls suggested around the time of the flag referendum, (I say shifting towards, not that it has a majority yet) then we need to start the conversation now about what our constitutional arrangements should look like if we really want the transition to a new monarch to be the point at which we become a republic, because rushing into that process half-blind is not a good idea.

So, Labour’s list is out. You can see bios for the most electable candidates at Labour’s website, although it hasn’t yet been updated for list-only candidates*. (update: you can find Labour’s article on their list here)

If you haven’t been following the news, you will note that in addition to the expected absense of Annette King after she decided to step aside next election in favour of Jacinda Ardern for deputy and Paul Eagle in her electorate, Sue Moroney is now gone too. This is a big loss for Labour, as she has been a champion for working women, making excellent strides with paid parental leave in Parliament, and it looks like they’ve naively looked at the party vote in her electorate and decided she’s a drag as a candidate, when I think it’s likely she just suffered from a tide towards national in the election, and deserved an electable list position. I expect if she hadn’t resigned, this means the highest she would have ranked would be the early 30s, and to be honest, that’s a very unfair ranking when compared to some of the performances of MPs who were ranked significantly higher, such as Stuart Nash, Clare Curran, Ruth Dyson, or Jenny Salesa. Appeal to the electorate can’t be the only consideration when ranking list MPs, there also has to be some concession to how effective they were at pushing key legislation and their performance in the house. Moroney should have ranked very highly on those two issues among sitting Labour MPs, and certainly among those who aren’t currently on the front bench, and probably deserved a ranking nearby Ruth Dyson and Jenny Salesa.

I’m honestly not as interested in the story about what caused the delay in releasing the list, and whether Little was trying to bump Willie Jackson up the ranks, as in all practical terms, he’s in a fairly electable position. If Labour polls below 30%, Jackson certainly hasn’t earned his spot in Parliament back, and being possibly the lowest-ranked list MP for Labour in 2017 will give everyone who wants him in the party a huge incentive to campaign hard for the Party Vote to make sure his position is secure. I think that’s win-win, and even if he’s disappointed, I think he’s done pretty well out of the list selection, to be honest, with some more talented newer political blood ranking lower than him. (Willie Jackson might be new to the Labour Party, but he was also the deputy leader of the Alliance back during the Clark era, so he’s old blood in the same sense as Laila Harré is. And we’ll all note that she, while far more qualified to be an MP than Jackson, has not had anyone advocating to get her an electable position in the Labour Party)

I’ve gone through and assigned each candidate to their electorate where I could find public comfirmation of their selection, and recorded which electorates Labour won in 2014, then threw in Ōhāriu for good measure, as there’s a real chance Labour could win there, and I have assumed for the primary scenario that Kelvin Davis will win again in Te Tai Tokerau. Neither of those are really guaranteed, but they are likely enough that Labour should be banking on them happening when it selects its list. (arguably, it should also be considering its candidates for Hamilton East and Hamilton West in terms of gender balance too, as most governments win at least 1 of the Hamilton seats, if not both of them) I’ve then calculated the effective list position for the remaining candidates, and compared it with the current average of recent Labour polling performances, which would net them 36 seats.

In that first scenario, where the two competitive races against minor parties go Labour’s way, they would end up with 20 male MPs, and 16 female MPs. Each of those two races would return a female list MP instead if Labour lost, assuming the minor party Labour lost to didn’t take a seat off them, which is a reasonably safe assumption given the polling of both United Future and Mana, so if Labour loses both Te Tai Tokerau and Ōhāriu and maintains its current polling into the election, its caucus will be gender-balanced for the first time ever.

According to its own regulations, Labour should be selecting its list so that women are expected to win at least 50% of its seats. This so-called “man ban” has not eventuated, as Labour will be assuming they’ll win both those key electorates, which means they need to make up four women in the party vote from current polling. The earliest they could do this would be to win exactly another 15 seats, (ie. 51 total, enough that they could govern with just the Greens in their coalition) which would require roughly a 41.5% Party Vote for Labour, assuming all of the votes were gained off National. That’s a 12% bump from current polling, something which would basically require Bill English to completely gaffe up the campaign, like claiming the Labour Party aren’t mainstream enough, or undermining our nuclear free-status, or simply being as racist as he was last time he was National Leader. Labour shouldn’t have to rely on National screwing up their campaign to elect enough women to get a reasonably balanced caucus, especially as women are a key constituency for Labour, especially as they are a fair amount of the unionised workforce nowadays.

The Herald seems to have run the same calculation I have to determine list eligibility, as they note that a party vote returning 40 Labour seats, which with current polling is about 33%, (which is about 1% higher than the error bars on their current polling, so a difficult result to get even if Labour is under-polling this election) would be required to elect Mallard as a list MP. This almost has me hoping that we don’t move too far from current polling and end up with a NZ First-Green-Labour government, as I suspect this election would be Mallard’s last if he doesn’t make it in, and Labour desperately needs to shed some of the dead wood that’s still somehow making it into the top 40 list positions.

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UK Snap election

Posted: April 19, 2017 in elections, United Kingdom
Tags: ,

Theresa May has just announced a snap election for June 8th in the United Kingdom. This is pretty “snap” as snap elections go, not even giving a full two months to campaign.

This is clearly an attempt to solidify her mandate going in to Brexit talks, and head off calls for a confirming referendum on the massive constitutional change that the final Brexit deal will entail. (mainly because she fears that it throwing the issue back to the people will show a majority now wish to abort Brexit) Of course, any first year political science student will tell you that a second vote on the exact details of the deal, allowing a genuine backout for people who’ve changed their minds, would be basic constitutional practice. But it’s sink or Brexit now according to May, and she needs to leave no room in her false dichotomy for dissent, or, you know, other options.

It looks, however, like the only debate is going to be between Hard Brexit and Soft Brexit, which is a bit of a losing proposition for the two opposition parties that are buying into that dichotomy, the Liberal Democrats and Labour. The SNP, which also deserves to be called a major party in the UK, obviously supports remaining, but they would need both the Lib Dems and Labour to make such an arrangement work. There’s no indication they intend to do that, or even do a neat work-around where Scotland gets to take over as the UK’s successor state for EU membership.

It also seems like Corbyn is set to suffer a David Cunliffe-style unprecendented defeat as right-wing elements undermine his populist leadership. Who knows if another “chicken coup” will result where they again force a leadership contest and he refuses to resign, but it’s possible, and if he doesn’t manage to pull a coalition government. (which, for anyone reading from the UK, is a perfectly normal thing that can be stable, when actually compatible parties are involved. The Lib Dem/Conservative one was disastrous precisely because people vote Lib Dem because they hate Tories but can’t get a Labour majority in their district. We had a similar situation when New Zealand First and National got in bed with each other in our first coalition government. Not all centrists mix well with right-wingers)

While the conservatives are dramatically ahead in party-preference polling, there’s no good indication of what seats are likely to fall which way just yet, so nobody really knows how close things are, other than that the Conservatives are certainly going to be the largest single party. Whatever happens, it will determine the fate of the United Kingdom (and whether it remains united) for generations to come, and that burden will end up on the shoulders of the winner. Theresa May should be fervently hoping to be in opposition if she has any care for her political legacy.

For those who know me personally, they usually find this particular opinion of mine surprising. I am a fan of online practically-everything-else. Online games, online food ordering, online shopping in general, online tax, online civil service in general, online insurance, email contacts online, online OIA databases, you name it, I think it’s a reality of modern business and a good thing too.

But I think online voting is a terrible idea, at least at the moment, and possibly inherently, and given that previous paragraph, you should take that opinion all the more seriously, because I would love it if we could square the circle and find a practical way to vote online. I just don’t think it will work.

Why? Well, I’m gonna have to delve into more election nerdery to explain. To start with, there are three critical things to running a good election, that will seem to be contradictory but won’t be once we define them narrowly. They are:

  • Security/Integrity
  • Transparency/Verifiability
  • Secrecy

What do I mean by those three words, and how aren’t transparency and secrecy contradictory requirements? Well because they’re secrecy and transparency of different aspects of an election, namely a secret ballot but a transparent process.

Transparency means you need to be able to tell from the means you use to vote that it will be counted as intended (assuming you actually followed the voting instructions, anyway) if delivered to an honest actor. This is why paper is such a great medium for voting- you mark your ballot, either with a pen or punch machine, and put it into a sealed box so it can’t be spoiled until someone with the key to count it comes along, and it can be secured adequately through purely physical means, and quite easily so. The only people you have to trust are honest are the counters, and they cross-verify, so they’d need to all be part of a conspiracy, or all make a mistake, for them to miscount your vote. Likewise, election officials also need to be able to tell who has voted, not just for statistical research, but also for security purposes. Paper ballots are the best way we currently have to do both of those things at once, especially as you can seperate the metadata part of the ballot from the rest in the counting process so that the people who need to see voter identities to prevent fraud can’t physically go and match that metadata to how a person voted. There is no good way to do that with digital voting. This is sometimes called transparency because for a voter to really be able to understand that any machines involved aren’t fraudulently affecting their votes, they need to actually be able to see and understand how the machine operates, thus the best voting machines are literally translucent so you can watch them doing their thing.

Secrecy, or having a “secret ballot,” refers to a very different part of the process, namely, it means that nobody can prove how you voted, or violate your privacy. The people counting the ballots don’t get to see the database of who voted on which number ballot, and the people who do get to see the metadata about how voters connect to ballots don’t get to see the actual ballots, or if they do, the metadata parts are seperated from the actual vote. The poll workers don’t get to inspect your ballot, but they do get to see that you’re not interfering with other voters, usually through some sort of privacy booth or privacy shield. There are some very narrow situations where it may be arguably better to allow certain voters to cast a non-secret ballot, (for instance, voters who can’t reliably mark a form but trust a friend, family member or carer to assist them) but by-and-large the secret ballot is a critical part of elections.

I’m pretty convinced that it’s fundamentally impossible to marry those two objectives with internet voting, and most approaches also cause issues with integrity. What do I mean by integrity? Well, basically, we should be able to assume that if anyone casts a fraudulent vote through any means, we should be able to easily find out and disregard that vote before a final result is declared, and therefore we should never have to “overturn” the results of an election because we later detect fraud after the fact. In short, the election needs to be secured against vote-tampering, and the public needs to see that it has been secured and have confidence in the measures taken. Some of this security relies on a lack of collusion between other parts of government and the part running the election, but once you have a truly independent election authority, it’s pretty hard to do any sort of mass fraud, so it’s largely down to preventing critical gaming of the election system, or catching people dumb enough to interfere in ways that may not make a significant difference, such as voter impersonation.

There are non-online election methods that don’t rigorously meet these three criteria too, but to my knowledge, most national-level elections in a developed country do, with the exception of the USA, which fails terribly on integrity, mainly due to partisan corruption of their electoral institutions, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.

New Zealand has a vote-by-mail system for local elections and sometimes for citizens-initiated referenda. Vote by mail is not secure, and it’s not secret, and it has some other less-critical problems with it, too, but it’s probably the most practical way to hold local elections if we don’t want to synchronize them with national ones.

How is voting by mail insecure? Simple. People can commit the crime of stealing each others’ ballot papers. If they’re smart, they will do so for people who are away at the time of the vote or who are registered but won’t notice the ballot is missing. There is no actual way to tell that the person who filled out and mailed back the ballot is the person who was supposed to vote with it, so voter impersonation, while not a problem in in-person voting, is an unknown unknown in vote-by-mail. I would trust such a system for institutional elections that nobody outside the institution knows about and where there’s no guarantee anyone aware of the election will know anyone else’s address, but that’s about it.

How is voting by mail not secret? Because there’s no observers, partial or impartial, to ensure that nobody looks at your ballot or coerces you into voting a certain way. This means that people are vulnerable to coercion as to how they cast their votes, as for example, an abusive/controlling parent or spouse can verify whether they’ve voted the “correct” way before they mail in their ballot. Technically, any system where you have the ability to match up a person to a ballot is vulnerable to this sort of coercion, even if that proof of how you voted can only be showed after the election has finished- you can still be threatened with future violence, or have your vote bought with rewards or cash, so long as you have some method to 100% demonstrate how you voted. We’ll come back to internet voting after another example of a bad election method.

I mentioned we’d also talk about the insecurity of US voting. The USA relies on voting machines manufactured by partisan businesses to conduct voting in several states. These voting machines run proprietary software, and in many cases voters can’t verify the paper trail themselves before the vote is finalised, or sometimes even at all. They are thus highly vulnerable both to individual voters bypassing their security and hacking them, (there are videos online of how to do it, in fact, for certain models) and of manufacturer tampering to fix the vote for a certain party, which there is some statistical suspicion might have occurred in the last handful of elections. (it was maybe even critical to Trump’s win of certain northeastern states) Anything that tells you on a screen you’ve voted a certain way can be lying to you if you can’t physically see a way to verify otherwise. It can be programmed to switch a selection of votes from the party the manufacturer doesn’t prefer to the one it does.

Basically the only way to secure a machine against provider fraud is to have its software be open source, (and even then, you need to be able to read code to personally verify that your vote is going the right place, and you need to be sure that the open-source code is actually what’s running on the election machines) however doing so means that if there are any technical vulnerabilities, they are incredibly easy to find. That’s okay if you secure the physical machines and they are disconnected from any and all networks, and if any hardware that could be used for vote tampering by officials or by voters is put in plain view rather than part of the booth or behind the shield that voters will use for privacy. The US largely doesn’t take those preventative measures, because the rules are set by whichever political party is currently in charge of the state, (as the constitution highly limits federal election law for some strange reason) and there is thus huge incentive to game the system, as the official responsible for the integrity of voting in the state has no requirement to be non-partisan. (in fact, the Secretaries of State (not to be confused with the federal one, who is the equivalent of a Minister of Foreign Affairs in a New Zealand context, these are like having 50 local CEs of the electoral commission each making different rules) are often overt partisans)

Traditional internet voting based on a single secure database system or network has all the problems of both vote-by-mail and of US voting machines, with the possibility of online hackers who can compromise the system without even bothering to go phishing for passwords added into the mix. (You also have to remember that the possibility for interference opens up to the rest of the world once you put the system online, so you’re making yourself vulnerable to foreign agents who could never set foot on your soil, too) I’m willing to go on record as saying I think it’s logically impossible to secure such a voting apparatus to a level that’s necessary for national elections, especially as the added problem of hacking makes it much more difficult to verify within an acceptable timeframe whether all the relevant information is authentic. (because instead of being to trust all the meta-information you’ve received about what barcode belongs to what vote, it’s possible that such information has been faked. So you can’t rely on the receipts from the system about how many people voted online until it’s been cleared of digital interference, which is a process pretty vulnerable to false negatives)

Some people are proposing blockchain voting systems. Blockchain is the distributed verification technology behind BitCoin and many similar cryptocurrencies, which is basically a protocol for distributed databases. Such systems could be acceptable for non-critical elections, like organisational ones, or maaaaybe local body voting and referenda. The difficult thing is, the ones that I’ve seen that in principle could be secure are fundamentally incompatible with a secret ballot.

Why? Because they rely on distributed ballot databases and a layer of public key/private key cryptography. Effectively, anyone can sign up to the blockchain and they get a copy of the database. Then whenever a change needs to be made, it’s submitted to a certain number of known holders of the database and tagged with the public key that requested the change, and all of those members of the blockchain ensure that they communicate that change to all other members of the blockchain they’re connected to, until it trickles through the distributed network. This means that any attempt to compromise the database has to simultaneously hit the entire blockchain to work, or anyone that they’ve missed will detect an error. That’s very good for security.

And to vote, someone would need to compromise your private key, which you personally control, so on that front you’re actually a little more secure than vote-by-mail, maybe. I’ll come back to this in a second.

However, it also means that some form of public identifier has to be attached to every vote. While that information is theoretically anonymous, in practice it can be tracked back to an individual. Blockchains rely on tracking where information comes from in order to maintain security, and public keys can be traced back to specific IPs and timestamps, which means they can be traced to specific users, which means you no longer have a secret ballot.

Likewise, the ability to use the private key also allows you to demonstrate to anyone watching you vote online who you voted for at the time of the election at a bare minimum, if not afterwards too, and you are also able to deliberately compromise your private key and let someone else vote for you, again opening up voter coercion. Any system where there isn’t a way to verifiably observe people voting in a way that is seperated from observing what they vote for is fundamentally insecure. You could arguably do so through webcams, but there’s absolutely no guarantee that the video data wouldn’t be fake without secure hardware, which defeats the economies-of-scale to online voting.

You could use such a system in contexts where a secret ballot isn’t necessary, such as local direct democracy, or organisational elections. But it’s fundamentally vulnerable to identities being compromised, because it relies on keeping those identities semi-public to secure the vote.

This is without even getting into the non-critical problems with online voting, such as the fact that when there’s not a specific Election Day, people will often forget the deadline and not vote in time. This is a big problem with voting-by-mail, too, which makes online voting actually a problem for turnout rather than a solution when it’s used as the primary voting method rather than in supplement to in-person voting.

Blockchain methods might be suitable for a sort of public-ballot electronic direct democracy on local issues where voter coercion, fraud, or voter harassment aren’t as likely to be problems, but that too has its issues, such as the “self-selecting oligarchy” problem with inclusive, high-volume democracy: that is, it’s so work-intensive to vote on every local issue that only very enthusiastic people tend to show up for it with any regularity, thus those with the time and/or interest tend to form an oligarchy among those who are actually eligible, as they usually hold the majority of votes on any given issue. You can also have the opposite problem of tyrrany of the ambivalent, where people who are only tangentally effected by on issue flood in and force a decision that key stakeholders hate. These are general democratic challenges of course, but electing representatives helps smooth them out a bit, wheras direct democracy is a little more difficult.

So, in conclusion: No to online voting for now, and probably no forever, as I’m pretty sure it’s logically impossible for online voting to hit all three critical points at once, and I am actually a fan of representative democracy. It provides a level of guarantee of human rights, it helps smooth out how democracy functions between the boring issues and the ones of great public interest, and quite frankly, it’s easier to keep democracy slightly at arms lengths from the average voter, so we can keep their powder dry in terms of democratic participation for when it’s really needed, rather than subjecting them to constant voter fatigue.

Universal Te Reo

Posted: March 29, 2017 in Uncategorized

The Greens had the first policy launch of the year, arguing for universal teaching of Te Reo in Primary schools, intermediates, and to a limited degree in Secondary schools. (that is, as a core curriculum subject for Years 1-10) This is not entirely unprecedented1, and it is a reasonable reaction to the still-declining ability of Māori to actually hold a conversation in their own language. I had meant to talk about this earlier but other events displaced my work on this post, so you can have it on delay instead.

Some would argue that this is a hippy-dippy thing for a party to promote, but I think that’s probably because very few of them have actually sat down and read up on the matter like I did after the policy announcement. (despite being a language nerd and being in favour in principle, I wanted to know the statistics around this and familiarize myself with a few of the broad issues facing educators and students in this space)

The last information2 we have is that Te Reo is only available in less than 50% of New Zealand schools. As an official language with legal recognition in New Zealand, (fun fact: this means Te Reo Māori actually has a higher formal status than English in New Zealand law, as English has no legislative status despite being a de facto official language) Te Reo Māori deserves better. Also included in the policy, but not being talked about, is a push for better access to Māori sign language for the intersection of the deaf and Māori communities, which is incredibly important. As a second-language speaker myself, I can definitely say that my brief experiences with not always being able to accurately explain New Zealand culture were not just frustrating but incredibly alienating, and that’s only a small taste of what children who don’t even have the vocabulary to understand and discuss their own culture because they’ve only ever been taught signs for European cultures must feel.

Because we’re mostly talking about primary and intermediate schools, (plus the first two years of secondary) the usual practice is that all education is considered core education, and the differences come about in optional parts of the curriculum that each school decides to cover, so in practice it would no longer be an option not to learn Te Reo in Years 1-8 once it is available in all schools, however arguably there might be some flexibility for secondary school students depending on how universality is handled there that might make the last two proposed years non-compulsory. I think the benefits grossly outweigh the compulsion required, as with compulsory education in English language.

All this is essentially talking about is teaching basic vocabulary and rote phrases to young kiwis. Advanced language learning where people are actually taught language structure and how to compose their own sentences without rote memorisation is usually left until Year 11 in language education, although given how early the Greens want to start, (as usually languages other than English don’t start until Year 9) it’s possible that advanced grammar could be taught much earlier in terms of what school year it’s introduced in while still going slower than the secondary school pace of second-language education, in which case, great.

This would have the pleasant side-effect of improving education of English as students not failing Te Reo would have some basic understanding of grammar. Te Reo grammar is much less complicated than English grammar, so they’d still both need to be covered either separately or comparatively, but they would likely need to become familiar with concepts of what nouns are, what verbs are, how plurals work, what pronouns are, and how possessives, indefinite articles, and definite articles work, even though a few of those things differ in Te Reo.

And language nerdery aside, it’s shown that education that integrates Māori culture and language is much more effective for Māori students, (as you would expect!) which means it will help provide equality of opportunity in education, and that language revitalization efforts integrating compulsory education into the mix is very effective, and giving it status as a core subject that everyone needs to learn will help remove the element of peer-pressure that is likely contributing to declining ability in Te Reo.

And on the benefits for non-Māori students, the UK has had a lot of benefits migrating to a very similar policy of compulsory second language education3, although there have been challenges in up-skilling the workforce to cope with it that they still haven’t met, which we would likely encounter as well, and would thus need to aggressively plan for. And unlike generic second language education, compulsory Te Reo should lead to much increased racial harmony between other ethnic groups in New Zealand and Māori due to increased ability to understand the Māori perspective and participate meaningfully in Māori culture, which can only be a good thing.

Overall it’s a well-founded bit of policy, and it’s shot across the bow in terms of values: the Greens know it’s not a general vote-grabber to propose policy that benefits Māori, but it’s a debate they want to have and reverse public perception on as part of their planned win. This is much like what Cunliffe managed to do with wealth taxes, despite his loss, (which was due to other reasons) and it’s the right way to campaign in an election year. Despite being in a populist mood, people will always prefer a genuine party with values to an establishment one without, and populism is best aimed at things the people most care about, so let’s hope that Labour has also understood that lesson from both 2014 and 2016.

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