Voter turnout problems across NZ

Local body elections low turnout

by Nick Cross, Policy Chair

Low turnout at the local body elections over the weekend should be a cause for concern. The Electoral Commission estimated at 44% of enrolled voters turned out, down from 49% in 2010. Some areas were of particular concern with turnout in Auckland only reaching 35% of eligible voters.

Many theories have been offered as to why this might have been, but what’s more interesting is what we can do about it. Last month the government announced that online voting will be trailed in the 2016 Local Body Elections as a means of improving participation. I think this will be an excellent idea. Postal voting seems like an anachronism in the age when most young people would rather engage with politicians online than through the postal system. We’re more comfortable having all the information on a screen to peruse and it makes it much less likely that forms will simply be lost or forgotten once filled out. I think a particular problem for students with postal voting is that they regularly move flats and updating their address with the Electoral Commission tends to be low on a list of priorities when there is no general election in the near future. Hopefully a method of implementation can be found which makes it easier for students in this situation.

Recently Local Government NZ President Lawrence Yule floated the idea of compulsory voting as an option worthy of consideration, but I don’t think that route is worth going down. Part of the problem which leads to low turnout is the limited effort the politicians themselves are making to engage their communities. Compulsory voting sends the wrong message to these politicians, rather than drawing out non voters by giving them meaningful reasons to vote, these people are treated as low information voters and bombarded with advertising to swing them based on the premise that they know very little about local body issues. It is already quite common for candidates for bodies like the regional council to discuss ‘sexy’ issues which that body has no control over. I think this could ruin the debate we need to have during elections, with complex issues being consigned to the background.

Another daft plan put forward by Labour MP Sua William Sio is the state funding of local body candidates. I really don’t like this idea, giving taxpayers money out is not something that should be done lightly and it’s not clear how this plan will improve turnout. People should also have a right to not be effectively forced to support a political viewpoint they may strongly disagree with through their taxes.