The election race is on. The nominations process for local government positions has now closed, and the political campaign is officially underway. But does the public care? Will many of us even vote for any of the various mayoral or council candidates?
Going on recent experience, we shouldn’t expect many more than a third of eligible voters to actually cast a vote in local government elections this year. After all, at the last round of elections in 2016, the official turnout rate was only 42 per cent. Once you take into account the nearly ten per cent of eligible voters who don’t even enrol to vote, the turnout rate is not much more than a third of adult New Zealanders.
Is anything likely to change this year? And how can voter participation rates be increased? These are some of the big debates going on around the local government elections at the moment.
There is certainly no shortage of voices telling us to vote and about the importance of our local council and mayor. For example, journalist Georgina Campbell, who covers local government issues for the Herald, writes about her passion for this type of politics and argues people should care deeply about what’s going on in their local council because “decisions made there have such an immediate effect on daily life” – see: Local government not as sexy as the Beehive, but still important.
She gives the example of the Greater Wellington Regional Council's recent bus network reorganisation fiasco (“bustastrophe”), and predicts an increase in voter turnout as a result of people now realising the importance in that region of what the politicians do. What’s more, she says, if you vote, you then have “a licence to whinge” for the next three years if your candidate isn’t elected.
Columnist Oscar Kightley is clearly tired of reminding readers to vote, and laments that of “the 400 or so weekly columns I've written in the past eight years, a previous one about local body elections would be among the least read”, but that’s not going to stop him – see: Get your vote on: We really need to care about our local elections.
Here’s his pitch for you to vote: “while it's the central government elections and politicians that get all the attention, our daily lives are for more impacted by the decisions that go down around the council table. It's not just the all-important rubbish collection, there's everything from the playgrounds we rely on as safe and useful spaces for kids, the libraries, the public transport system, the water that comes out of our taps, the rates bills and the public transport we rely on to connect us to the important facets of our lives. And yet these are still the elections we seem to care about the least.”
Kightley concludes that “more of us should care about it. Not because it's the right on thing to do, but because that level of engagement is way more effective than just liking something on social media.”
The local government politicians and their decisions might sometimes be seen as a joke, according to Peter Dunne, but the councils have charge over some pretty serious finances: “Their public equity in 2018 was just under $124 billion, and their capital and operating expenditure more than $15 billion. Indeed, most likely, local government and the services it provides, has a far more direct impact on the lives of New Zealanders than does central government” – see: Local government is no joke.
Similarly, Brent Edwards breaks down the importance of local government activities to our daily lives: “From the time we get up in the morning, go to the toilet, have a shower, boil the jug and then brush your teeth, all the services required for that to go smoothly are supplied by your local authority” – see: Why voting in local body elections does matter (paywalled).
So, given that voter turnout is so low, what’s the problem, and how can we fix it?
According to Brent Edwards, a big part of the problem is that voters aren’t being informed enough: “The news media can also take some responsibility for lower turnout, with few national media organisations giving local elections the same coverage as general elections. Largely shorn of the party campaigning that dominates national politics, local body elections – Auckland city aside – are largely seen as dull and worthy. It is not helped by the fact the stripping out of regional news media has led to much less coverage of council affairs over the past decade or so. As a result, many residents know little of what their councils are up to.”
There are various anecdotes being published at the moment looking at what is preventing the public from participating. In Hamilton, Rikihana Smallman profiles three women running for office and their attempts to mobilise more voters – see: Who runs the Tron? Candidates look to disrupt city office.
One candidate, Anna Smart, is reported as believing that amongst the public there is “no trust in the status quo”, and misinformation prevents some from voting. For example, “Something that was really alarming to me was the perception that renters didn't feel like they could vote or that they were eligible to vote… They are probably more susceptible to some of the changes that are made at a council and central government level and yet they don't feel like they have a right to have a say.”
Certain demographics are more susceptible to non-voting than others. In his article about the election in Southland, Damian Rowe surveys youth and why they’re not inclined to vote – see: Young voters in the south show lack of interest in local government elections. Young people interviewed suggest that information about elections and candidates isn’t “presented in an accessible manner”.
However, Invercargill City Councillor Alex Crackett is reported as believing an upsurge of voter turnout could be on the cards this year: “Talking to the Invercargill Youth Council, there was a sense that youth voter turnout would be higher this year than the 2016 local government election... Issues such as climate change and the youth involvement through the School Strikes 4 Climate, showed younger generations were scared for the future”.
In Auckland, there’s a sign that young would-be voters are happy to be forced to vote, with an Auckland Council survey showing that although only 45 per cent of young people (25 to 34-year-olds) voted at the last election, about 60 per cent of them believe that voting should be compulsory – see 1News’ Majority of young Aucklanders want voting to be compulsory, new survey finds.
In addition, 75 per cent of that age group say they are going to vote this year. The Council is also “encouraging diverse communities, including young people, to stand for positions”, with the General Manager of Democracy Services, Marguerite Delbet, reported as believing “this would encourage more youth to vote” as they can “identify and have an affinity with” such as candidates.
The Auckland Council did want to trial online voting for this election, but central government abandoned this project. Mayor Phil Goff was enthusiastic for such a trial, and apparently 74 per cent of surveyed Aucklanders also wanted this. For a discussion of this, and other efforts in Auckland to mobilise voters, see Stephen Forbes’ So what's happening with the push to increase voter turnout by enabling online voting?
Auckland Council chief executive Stephen Town also discusses the problem that “just 25 per cent of Aucklanders who, through their votes, decided the make-up of those charged with making major decisions on their behalf” – see: Aucklanders 'unenthused' by local body elections.
Town says the council is investing $1.1m in various campaigns to encourage voting (about $1 per potential vote). This includes holding mock elections for about 15,000 high school students.
For a wider-ranging debate held by the Auckland Council on the problem, see RNZ’s Paying voters? Idea floated to boost local body elections turnout. According to this, “Local government figures show the main reasons people didn't vote were not knowing enough about the candidates, not being interested in politics, or they just forgot.”
This article also quotes Massey University’s Karl Kane explaining that, despite complaints about “apathy”, youth are in fact involved in alternative forms of political activity: “They're more likely to be conscious consumers, or activists, or take direct action towards an oil company, or a company that uses sweatshops. They're more likely to take direct action than wait three years to tick a box.”
There is increasingly a sense that the mechanism of postal voting is no longer fit for purpose – especially because Postshops are closing down, and a number of post-boxes are being removed around the country – see TVNZ’s Concerns lack of post boxes leaving those in poor communities unable to vote in local elections.
Most of the above discussion focuses on some of the more “mechanical” ways of trying to fix the voter turnout problem in local government. But perhaps there are bigger changes required. Local government democracy scholar, Jean Drage, has put together an important report on the problems and potential solutions to declining voter participation in local elections – see: Strengthening Local Voices.
For a summary of her arguments, see her must-read shorter article, Strengthening local voices. In this, she argues that people’s likelihood of voting depends on many things, such as how involved one feels in the community, how much information they are receiving, and whether they feel the ability to influence decisions.
But here’s her main point: “we need to seriously consider what size of council best promotes local democracy, how to increase awareness of our local representatives and the policy decisions being made, and we need greater simplification in the process of having a say as members of our communities. It is clear, in particular, that a few councillors representing tens of thousands of constituents does not ensure familiarisation or involvement in local decisions.”
Also, Drage suggests “the electoral process needs to be simplified. It is clear that two electoral systems for one election is a deterrent to voter participation. There are only three local authorities across the country where voters use one electoral system”.
See also Drage’s previous article, Local elections: Let’s make councils more proactive. In this she discusses how city councils are failing to provide information to voters about the upcoming elections. But this might improve, she reports, as council CEOs are now legally charged with improving voter turnout and providing better information to voters.
Relating to this, it’s worth reading Jimmy Ellingham’s article today about the Palmerston North local elections – see: City council must change stance about not holding candidates’ meetings.
There are other signs that local government democracy is in need of bigger reform, with some survey results out showing voters losing confidence in those institutions. For example, in Hamilton, where turnout was only 30 per cent at the last election, the City Council chief executive reports: “Community confidence in council is dropping. Only 26 per cent of people have confidence our council will make decisions in their best interests. And the residents' perception that they have large (or some) influence over the decisions the council makes has dropped from 45 per cent to 30 per cent” – see Tom Rowland’s Democracy ‘under threat’: Fears over Hamilton election turnout.
Finally, perhaps humour will get people engaged in the election campaign, and in Auckland, a well-known satirist has entered the race – see the Herald’s: Local elections: Comedian Tom Sainsbury's alter-ego Fiona running for Auckland mayor.
Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Victoria University and director of Critical Politics, a project focused on researching New Zealand politics and society.