Thanks to Harry Chapman for letting us share some of his thoughts on voter turnout in local government elections on WCC Watch.
There’s been heaps of discussion recently about the low voter turnout at the recent local government elections, and the reasons behind the inevitable trend downwards – except, it seems, in Wellington and a couple of other places where turn out has increased somewhat!
Why is voting so low, and what can we do about it?
Above: A graphical representation of our failures (source: Dom Post)
Why is voting low?
The voting system
Most places in New Zealand still use the First Past the Post system. Although FPP has its advocates, in my view it’s a pretty terrible system which disenfranchises people who would like to vote for less well-known candidates but don’t want their vote wasted. Unfortunately, local government (particularly regional councils) are moving at a glacial pace to introduce STV in their elections. Perhaps it’s time for central government to step in and with a stroke of a pen change it across the whole of the country.
For those places where Single Transferable Vote (STV) is used, it has sometimes come under fire for being far too complex. Particularly in those places in New Zealand where voters are confronted with different voting systems for different bodies when they open up the voting form, it’s easy to see why confusion might arise.
In some ways we are blessed in Wellington, in that all of our local bodies use Single Transferable Vote (WCC, GWRC, CCDHB) or Preferential Voting (Mayor). A criticism of STV is that it can be very daunting for people who feel like they have to rank each and every candidate running for each body. As most of you know, this is a misconception, and with STV you can choose however many candidates you want to rank. Hopefully over time people will come to understand better how STV works and this will become less of a problem.
I think it’s a mistake to blame it low voter turnout all on voter apathy. While that certainly may be a factor, one needs to ask why people aren’t motivated to participate: is it because they could participate and chose not to, or is it because their (lack of) financial and civic skills are creating a barrier to participation? It’s very easy to overlook the role of resources in voting.
Voting can be a complex process, and people might not have the civic skills to fully engage. The political science literature shows that there’s a strong and consistent socio-economic dimension to whether people participate in politics. That is, people who are better-educated, earn more, and generally come from wealthy and privileged backgrounds have high levels of civic skills, and vice-versa. Very much in this vein, Dr Bronwyn Hayward argued recently on Radio NZ that in some ways inequality is to blame low voter turnout.
One rather vague explanation for voter apathy is that the issues “are distant from the matters which really matter to people”. I think this reflects that local government politicians (and everyone else I guess) need to do a much better job of communicating what exactly it is that Local Government does for people on an everyday basis.
We don’t really know: do more research to find out
Associate Professor Christine Cheyne, an expert in local government wrote in an opinion piece recently:
The first priority is to establish a small independent panel to do a comprehensive audit of research on local elections and council- community engagement. The panel needs to collate what is known about improving voter turnout in New Zealand and identify gaps and develop a strategy for filling those gaps.
Very little systematic research has been undertaken and further research is needed. There are issues around design of the electoral process but most commentators have also highlighted issues with how local government connects with communities.
How can we increase voter turnout?
One possible solution to the problem of low voter turnout which has been floated is online voting. In my view, anything which lowers the costs of voting is a welcome development, but it’s unclear how big of an impact that will have. A recent article on stuff quoted academic Andy Asquith to shoot online voting down pretty well:
“Auckland mayor Len Brown joined Yule in advocating for e-voting, which is due to be trialled at 2016 local polls, but that was dismissed by [Andy] Asquith, a local government expert.”
Postal voting doesn’t seem to have worked but I really don’t think e-voting is the answer,” Brown said. “There seems to be this perception that if we bring in e-voting, all of a sudden, everyone is going to fall over themselves to click the mouse and vote.”
But we still have this fundamental issue that nobody knows who their councillor is and what council does, and until we address that you can have any system you like – you can have compulsory voting even – but if people don’t know what the hell they are voting for, it’s pointless.””
I think ideally online voting would be available in conjunction with our existing postal voting system so that people who aren’t technologically savvy have a system to fall back to. It will be interesting to see how the roll out of the online voting system will work in the next local government elections in 2016.
Forced party tickets, shortening voting periods, and compulsory voting
Encouraging, or even forcing, candidates to run on political party tickets has been touted as an option by some. I think strongly encouraging local government candidates to do this makes sense. It seems in Wellington that the Greens and Labour are doing it pretty extensively but National has yet to start running official candidates. Perhaps the political parties are a bit wary of being tarnished by association if something bad happens? (It seems David Cunliffe certainly doesn’t think the national-level Labour party should have a big role in local government.)
A shorter voting period has been suggested by some commentators as a way of increasing the sense of voting being ‘an event’. But I think the whole reason we have a long voting period is because it’s necessary for postal voting, and unless we want to ditch that system it’s a bit of a non-starter. While long voting periods can lull people into a sense of complacency, they also allow time for people’s late voting papers to arrive, and for a few chances to send back the completed form before the cut-off.
I also don’t think compulsory voting makes sense. If the underlying problem is that people don’t want to vote, then to simply compel people to vote is a very superficial response. There’s also an argument to be made that not voting is an important democratic right, before even considering what forcing people to vote will mean in terms of the quality of the voting.
Online engagement tools
One solution which hasn’t been talked about much in the media is developing (and using) online engagement tools. This election saw a number of these tools, such as Ask Away, which aimed to involve people in asking candidates questions which interested and effected them. People could vote for questions they thought were good by liking them, which also had the the effect of promoting the questions on Facebook.
Another tool which I found quite useful was vote.co.nz. Although it was a little hard to navigate, it had a useful tool where you could enter in your address and it showed you the candidates for your area.
Other groups like Generation Zero and VUWSA (which I am involved in) also attempted to increase voter turnout through various means. Perhaps John Morrison’s attempts to stop ballot boxes being put on the Victoria University campus also spurred some publicity among students. (It will be interesting to see when they release final turnout figures where the increase in voting came from – perhaps outraged students will make an appearance)
Let me know what you think: why aren’t people voting and what can we do about it?