It's the digital election race

STACEY KIRK
Last updated 05:00 06/04/2014
Kim Dotcom
Fairfax NZ
Kim Dotcom

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However we feel about German internet mogul Kim Dotcom, he has changed the way New Zealand voters engage with politics.

Typically, he's done it by releasing an app, the first of its kind allowing membership sign-up. It satisfies both electoral law requirements and Apple and Google's rules around collecting money through their stores.

The uptake may be slow; at the moment, it's not of much use to anyone who is not interested in the Internet Party but given time, other parties both here and abroad will eventually follow suit as they invest heavily in various forms of digital and social media engagement.

It's all geared toward chasing the elusive "800,000" - the eligible voters who did not make it to the ballot box at the last election.

Labour and the Greens are billing the group as their key to victory, while Dotcom has pegged them as his party's ticket to Parliament.

National is downplaying the size of the group and whether it's possible to engage those voters at all. But it still won't leave that up to chance.

Internet Party chief executive Vikram Kumar says the app was "so obvious, we wonder why others haven't done it yet".

The dream is to eventually use the app to "encourage other people to vote . . . for the Internet Party".

But how many of those 800,000 will engage? They are hardly a homogeneous group. Some will have smartphones, some won't. Some won't have televisions or even a home broadband connection.

National Party campaign chairman Steven Joyce agrees it's difficult to pinpoint any one reason people become disengaged from politics.

"In the 2011 election I think there were quite a few people that thought, certainly erroneously, because of the nature of the polls the election was a foregone conclusion.

"There are definitely some people that aren't engaged with politics, but to try and divine reasons for that is very challenging, given that they by definition are not engaged, they are not exactly about to tell you why it is that they aren't.

"That doesn't change the fact that you've got to attempt to engage people through all these media."

Joyce says National is working on new technologies, but remains coy about what they are. "I don't think there's been a single campaign I've been involved with where we've said ‘right that's it, we've definitely got the whole internet thing sussed, no need to change it this time'."

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Green Party campaign Coordinator Ben Youdan says technology has always formed a significant part of its campaign.

"We're starting to use much better tools to start understanding whether there are some trends around the types of voters who like particular types of posts we put out . . . that allows us to be much smarter about how we're targeting them and how we're engaging people into Green issues."

Youdan says picking influential "Twitterati" among Green followers had been helpful.

"We certainly look at the most influential people who follow us, what their clout is like and what their reach is. I think that's the sort of information that we take some strategic advantage of without giving too much away about our campaign strategy."

Joyce says social media is an increasingly important part of the communications arsenal for a political campaign. But it's still no substitute for feet on the ground.

"Fundamentally, people are most impressed when you talk to them. But of course it's not possible to talk direct with everybody, so you communicate through other means and the more personally the better."

Joyce says research into Twitter followers presupposes they follow a party because they support it. "In actual fact, different groups within your Twitter stream have different reasons for following you.

"Some of the people will be political partisans, some of them definitely will be the polar opposites, so you have to think on the way through, how you're communicating to what are probably quite disparate and narrow interest groups."

As political campaigns pick up on new technology, the Electoral Commission has to make sure they don't overstep the rules.

Once concerned at the potential for membership fraud, the commission eased the rules around collecting digital signatures in September last year, when it became satisfied enough steps were in place to mitigate that risk.

Chief electoral officer Robert Peden says new technology is a good thing, if it helps parties to campaign and people to vote.

For the first time this year, voters will be able to enrol online, as well as update their details. From midway through this year, anyone who has a RealMe government-verified account can complete the entire enrolment process online.

Peden says the commission is also looking at an app that will allow people to enrol, as well as provide online mapping of polling stations.

Overseas voters will also be able to upload their voting papers to a secure site, rather than voting by post or by fax, which has traditionally led to a low voter turnout among expatriates.

"We're very pleased about that because fax technology is becoming less and less accessible and hard to use. We're expecting this option will be very popular," Peden says.

The electoral holy grail, of course, is online voting - but that won't happen just yet. "It certainly won't be this year, the legislation mandates a manual paper-based process, but the Electoral Commission continues to explore options for online enrolment so that we're ready [to deliver] when the Government and Parliament is ready to introduce online voting," Peden says.

One thing is clear, though: the electoral landscape is changing fast. And we've got Dotcom in part to thank for that.

- Sunday Star Times

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