Bryce Edwards: Who’s to blame for the crisis of declining local voter turnout?

Bryce Edwards: Who’s to blame for the crisis of declining local voter turnout?

The vast majority of us are currently disobeying the instruction to vote in the current local government elections. Despite a cacophony of voices from authorities and commentators urging the public to give a tick to local politicians, it looks like we are headed for a record low voter turnout.

Turnout figures have been trending down for decades, and back in 2016 the figure was only 43 per cent. Therefore, last month I asked the question: Political Roundup: Will more than a third vote in the local government elections? Based on how many votes have been counted so far, this year it certainly looks like it could drop below 40 per cent.

In some cities the turnout is looking particularly bad. In Wellington, for example, only 21 per cent had voted by the end of yesterday, compared to 34 per cent at this stage of the process in 2016. In the end, the Wellington turnout could be as low as 30 per cent (compared to 46 per cent last time). If such trends do eventuate this week, who will be to blame?

Blaming the voters

So is this some sort of crisis? Does the continued decline of public participation in local democracy suggest the problem lies with local government? Not according to the local authorities and politicians themselves. The organisation that represents the councils, Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), has explained the declining voter turnout as a positive reflection of people’s contentment with councils.

LGNZ’s spokesperson Mike Reid told RNZ that “This does not represent a crisis in any kind of way” – see Andrew McRae’s Counting on democracy: Local elections turn-out too early to tell. And he put a positive spin on people choosing not to vote, suggesting that it actually reflects the public’s satisfaction with local government: “I think the only way you get high turnouts is when things go wrong and when things go wrong you have a lot of people coming out to vote for change. And when things are going right, so maybe some of the councils which have very low turnouts, are they doing things right.”

To the extent that it is a problem, the blame is, as usual, placed on voters themselves. According to this article, LGNZ’s Reid “believes voter turnout is low because people just take their local councils for granted”.

And according to the LGNZ spokesperson, any decline in voting could simply be because voters need educating about local government: “If you don’t have a full understanding of all the local services that are delivered and paid for by local residents then you are not going to be so motivated perhaps to put the time into searching out the candidates to vote for and then voting. (Teaching) Civics and a better understanding of how government works, democratic processes, are quite important for the long-term.”

There’s a plethora of articles and opinion pieces being published at the moment imploring people to take part in local democracy, with the suggestion that it’s the individual’s fault that they don’t feel inspired enough to participate.

For example, the Herald’s Wellington issues reporter, Georgina Campbell, says although there might be problems with the process of voting, or with the politicians themselves, ultimately “the onus lies with voters and it’s up to them to put pen to paper. We shouldn’t have to make elections ‘sexy’ or facilitate changes allowing people to vote from the comfort of their couch, just to entice them to vote” – see: ‘Reasons’ for low voter turnout wearing thin.

Similarly, the Taranaki Daily News’ local government reporter Christina Persico, reports that voter turnout in New Plymouth is very low this year, and tells her non-voting readers: “Look at the protests in Hong Kong – people are risking their lives in a fight for democracy” – see: Local government is part of your life every day and voting is the way you acknowledge that.

Persico concludes with an instruction to her readers: “At best, if you don’t vote you lose the mandate to complain and push for change. At worst, you are being lazy and apathetic. So get off your butt and vote. People have died for that right. Don’t turn your back on it.”

The theme of blaming citizens for not voting and linking it with people dying for the right to vote has been common. In Christchurch, where turnout so far is also lower than usual, city councillor and DHB member Aaron Keown complains that “The sad fact of reality is people do not respect the value of democracy that our forefathers died for” – see Tina Law’s New Zealand could be on track to record lowest voter turnout in four decades.

The politician is reported as believing that “if the right to vote was taken away then people would value it.” And he proclaims, “Essentially democracy is dead in New Zealand. When people do not vote, a dictator is just around the corner.”

Blaming the system

Instead of pointing the finger at the “apathetic” or “lazy” public, some commentators are focusing on the bigger picture, suggesting that the current system of local government is not relevant enough to citizens. Writing today in the Dominion Post, two Massey University management experts pinpoint the way that local politicians have ceased to engage the public as being the problem – see Andy Asquith and Andrew Cardow’s No quick fixes to low voter turnout.

Asquith and Cardow say it’s all about engagement: “Engagement is the key word here – people do not vote because they are not engaged in politics in general. They do not vote in local government elections because they have not been engaged by the politicians.” And they argue that the politicians simply don’t work hard enough to let us know who they are, what they do, and what they actually stand for.

Some major reform of the way that local government politics works is recommended by Asquith and Cardow. And they’d like to see candidates being more upfront about their ideologies, suggesting that if voters were offered more coherent choices of parties or platforms, we’d be more able to navigate the options: “A start would be for them to be explicit about their socio-political viewpoints, enabling voters to cut through the anodyne blurbs that all look same. Research published earlier this year on New Zealand local elections clearly indicates that those politicians that have an explicit political affiliation are more likely to be elected than those who stay silent.”

This is a point made yesterday by Brian Rudman, who says that the plethora of “independents” and free-floating politicians makes it harder for voters to navigate local politics, meaning that local government has become a farce with little relevance to citizens whose decision not to vote is therefore very understandable – see: Why voters ignore local body elections (paywalled).

Rudman suggests that in Auckland the politicians have failed to “group up in teams of like-minded individuals, or dare I say it, ‘political parties’ that we, the voters, can relate to.” This means that the councillors vote idiosyncratically and operate without any real accountability. This is his conclusion: “politicians on both the left and the right, have failed to create a disciplined party structure for their new parliament. A system that will ensure they will be held accountable for the election platform they have were elected on. And a system that will keep in check the ‘independent’ mayor and the wayward ‘council controlled’ agencies. Perhaps when Aucklanders see their ‘parliament’ functioning as it should, they might start voting for it.”

In reality, local government issues aren’t really determined by the elected local politicians, Rudman argues, and hence the public doesn’t focus much on them – real power is with the unelected bureaucrats and central government, and voting doesn’t really do much. Declining voter turnout is an understandable “don’t care yawn”.

Similarly, John Roughan cites a relevancy problem for local government in Auckland as a reason for people not voting: “We get to elect an Auckland Council that is not allowed to make the decisions that matter to most of us. Practical, down-to-earth decisions have to be delegated to council managers or its appointed agencies, designated in Orwellian newspeak ‘council controlled organisations’.” – see: Why the Auckland local body elections are like Hong Kong.

The incoherent nature of local politics, without clear ideologies or political party labels to help the public, makes voting difficult, because it reduces relevance and information for the public. In this regard, Lana Hart writes this week: “With better information about who we’re voting for, engagement in local body elections would improve, maybe even sending the voter turnout figures skywards” – see: If democracy is to work, we need better information on candidates.

Here’s her main point: “Ticking the boxes on my voting papers for the local body elections is like a lucky dip – we never really know what we’re going to get. What do I know about Candidate K or Councillor B? Their 200-word, self-penned profiles do little to give me more than a hint of their political leanings or values, or how well they can make decisions about our local resources like sewage plants and hospitals.”

There is also some recent survey evidence to show that the public feel disengaged with the current councils and local politicians. One newspaper survey asked the public: “Do you trust your local councillors to act on the issues that matter most to you?”, with only 16 per cent saying yes. And nearly half of respondents did not know the name of their local councillor. For more on this, see AUT’s Julienne Molineaux’s opinion piece, Politicians must do more to earn the trust of their constituencies.

In the Waikato region, another survey showed that eight out of ten young people “felt disconnected from their council”. And unsurprisingly, therefore, the country’s “lowest voter turnouts in the last local government elections were four councils in Waikato” – see Ellen O’Dwyer’s Waikato region home to four poorest local body voter turnouts at last election.

Of course, many councils are spending large amounts of money on hiring people to tell the public to vote. And there are plenty of innovative ways of doing this. For instance in New Plymouth the council has an interesting “’give a s..t and vote” campaign which is attempting to make local government voting cool – see Christina Persico’s New Plymouth District Council’s inflatable poo emoji hits the election campaign trail.

However, the article reports “it doesn’t appear to be having too much of an overall effect – only 26.5 per cent of New Plymouth’s voting papers had been returned as of Wednesday”.

The reality is that such campaigns – even those involving large amounts of money – have been shown to be ineffective when there are bigger underlying relevancy issues . This is explained in Cate Broughton’s article, Millions spent on election promotion not enough to bring back turned off voters.

As well as detailing the “heroic” and big-spending campaigns by local councils to increase voter turnout, this article reports on research by local government commentator Elizabeth Hughes, who “found local governments in Australia, Canada, England and Scotland could not demonstrate ‘broad brush’ promotional campaigns increased overall voter turnout”. Hughes herself says “I predict this will be the lowest ever turnout ever – most people just do not feel that local government has any relevance to them”.

It could be that a reorganisation of election management is required. And Alex Braae looks at this in his article, Whose job is it anyway? Inside our inadequate, uncoordinated efforts to up voter turnout.

Braae explains that local government election management is almost entirely decentralised: “in a strange quirk for local elections, there’s no single organisation with a nationwide responsibility to drive up turnout rates. The Electoral Commission is required to do this for general elections, but each individual local election is run by the local authority itself. For the Electoral Commission, their statutory responsibility for local elections ends at enrolment.”

Finally, could further decentralisation be the answer for making local government more relevant, and therefore engaging for citizens? There is currently a major proposal being put forward by Local Government New Zealand to give councils significantly more power and resources – you can delve into this at the website: Reinvigorating local democracy. And this is discussed by Nicola Martin in her opinion piece, Tackling low voter turnouts at local body elections.