Dodging bullets (or is that ballots?)

New Zealand's great voting fraud story looks to have died - for now, anyway.

For a while there it looked like the Auckland Supercity election could end up getting decided by a judge, as the unfolding claims of fraudulent voter registrations merged with claims that the early flood of votes from South Auckland were being matched by later turnout in assumedly "pro-Banks" parts of the city.

You could see this excited narrative developing in the news coverage leading up to the last day of voting, in articles like this and this. This TV3 story even had John Bank's muttering about the mayoralty being "stolen" (without making any specific allegations against anyone in particular, you understand).

Then the actual votes got counted.

Once this happened, not even the most hysterical members of the blogosphere commetariat could put Len Brown's near-65,000 vote majority down to corruption of the voting process. What is more, the alleged mastermind of the plot to fraudulently enroll voters and then steal their votes (although "mastermind" is a bit of a stretch, given the crude and easily discovered nature of the claimed scheme), Daljit Singh, failed in his own tilt at power on the glorious "Papatoetoe subdivision of the Otara-Papatoetoe Local Board in the Manukau Ward."

Yes - that's right. Mr Singh allegedly commited forgery by falsely enroling voters out of a desire to sit on a body that "will include oversight and decisions with respect to local facilities, like swimming pools and parks, community programmes and local services such as refuse collection and graffiti control, and some regulatory responsibilities."

I guess you could try and twist this into evidence of a passionate desire to serve the local community and its people ... but no. I think we can all agree that stealing other people's right to cast their own vote is pretty much inexcusable, no matter what the political colours pinned to the alleged malefactor's chest.

So, then. Mayor Brown convincingly elected. Alleged corrupter of the voting process safely beaten at the polls. Story over.

Well, maybe not. For one thing, the fact that someone even tried to cheat the system and steal votes is bound to raise questions when Parliament's Local Government and Environment Committee reviews the 2010 elections. In particular, just how safe is the postal voting system chosen by every local authority in the country?

(Note that - the universal use of postal voting for local elections is the result of a deliberate choice by each local authority in New Zealand. Why? Well, there is the claim that elections held by postal voting help to improve turnout - although I'm not sure reality bears this theory out. Leaving the undeniable reality that elections are much cheaper to run this way ... .)

I guess we'll need to wait for the Committee's report to get a definitive answer to the question, but my guess is it will conclude postal voting is pretty safe - but not totally so. In part, that is because you can't know what happens to ballots once you mail them out to voters. Are they really filled out by the intended voter, and under what circumstances, with whose eyes watching what boxes get ticked or numbered?

Furthermore, New Zealand's pretty minimal formal requirements to change enrollment details makes it easy to engage in the kind of behaviour that Mr Singh is alleged to have carried out. The claim is that he simply transferred the enrolment of real voters from outside of his ward to addresses inside of it without their knowledge, thus getting their voting papers mailed to him rather than to them.

But the Electoral Enrolment Center's data-matching system was always going to pick up this activity, given the number of voters claimed to be residing at individual addresses. Having up to 90 voters purportedly living in just two houses was always going to raise a red flag. That's why I called the attempted fraud "crude and easily discovered".

Furthermore, should any voter query why they haven't received their voting papers, then that too will spark enquiries likely to uncover the malfeasance. And remember, voting papers in New Zealand carry individual identifiers, allowing each ballot to be matched back to the particular voter who cast it. So any fraudulently obtained voting paper can be removed from the count after the fact, further reducing the incentives to try and cheat in this way.

All of which means that, while postal voting still carries more risks than does regular polling-place-and-ballot-box voting, we're unlikely in this country to see the same problems with large-scale fraud that has bedeviled places like the UK.

But then there's always the hypotheticals. Let's say Mr Singh had been elected to the local board position he obviously so desperately craved. What then?

Well, his election could have been challenged in the District Court, through a petition for inquiry. And had evidence of large-scale voter fraud been uncovered, then his election could be declared void. But note - the allegation against Mr Singh at the moment is not that he cast any fraudulent votes, but rather that he forged the enrolment details of voters to get their votes. So it may be that, had Mr Singh won, he would have done so purely through "real" votes.

In that case, there would be no grounds to void his election. So would he have been able to sit as a member of the community board? Well, yes ... at least until any conviction at trial.

Under the Local Government Act 2002, conviction for an offence carrying a jail term of more than 2 years automatically causes a member of a local authority to lose office. Mr Singh's been charged with forgery under the Crimes Act, which carries a jail term of up to 10 years. So a conviction would represent the end of his board membership.

But here's an interesting twist. Let's say a candidate didn't forge enrolment documents, but instead walked around Otara-Papatoetoe, lifting unopened voting papers out of recycling bins or off the pavement. The candidate then
opens the envelopes, fills out each ballot in her or his own favour, and posts them back. Then the candidate gets caught.

What might she or he then be charged with? Perhaps with voting more than once, under the Local Electoral Act 2001, s.124. Or perhaps "obtain[ing] ... any voting document, other than one issued to that person under this Act ... without authority" under s.123. Or perhaps with "personation" under s.128.

But whatever the charge, the same problem arises. Each of these offences is punishable by up to 2 years imprisonment. Yet the Local Government Act 2002 only kicks out of office people convicted of offences carrying imprisonment tarrifs of 2 years of more. Meaning that an elected candidate convicted of offences against the Local Electoral Act 2001 gets to keep her or his job.

Whether that makes any sense is, perhaps, an issue the Local Government and Environment Committee might wish to take up in their review.