Jacqui Van Der Kaay: Local government elections matter

Jacqui Van Der Kaay: Local government elections matter

Voter turnout in local body elections is traditionally low and now, more than halfway through this year’s election period, this trend looks likely to continue.

Turnout has been below 50 percent since 2004 and in 2019 was 42 percent – around half the turnout for national elections. Voter turnout is inconsistent across the country with higher turnout in smaller and more remote centres than in the cities and older people more likely to vote than younger. Unsurprisingly, homeowners are also more likely to vote. All of these contribute to uneven representation further undermining the impact of low turnout.

At this point in the elections, voter turnout is even lower than at the same time in the last local body elections three years ago, and even before the polling booths have closed there have been calls for changes to the system.

Speculation as to why voter turnout is so low includes ongoing concerns about postal balloting, the length of time the ballots are open, challenges for voters to work out who to vote for, how to vote, and this year that the Queen’s death may have caused an impact.

Other issues that have been raised include the different voting systems around the country and that, unlike the national elections, the Electoral Commission’s involvement is limited to encouraging enrolment before the campaigns start. The possibility of online voting has again been suggested as a potential solution.

It could be argued that the increasing and very visible impacts of climate change should increase people’s motivation to vote. Concerns around housing and transport have also become more pressing in the three years since the last election.  Time will tell whether these issues result in a higher turnout this time.

As with national politics, local government politics is also tainted by scandals and integrity issues that have the potential to undermine New Zealanders’ trust in politicians and democracy. Most recently Auckland mayoral candidate Wayne Brown was caught on camera saying he wanted to put photos of a journalist on urinals around Auckland so people could pee on him. Earlier in the campaign, he was found to have breached electoral law by posting an image of a voting form with his name ticked on social media.

In the South Island, third-term Christchurch city councillor Aaron Keown also broke the rules with social media post of his official voter paper showing the mayoral candidate he supports. There was also controversy early in the campaign when all 11 candidates for the Christchurch mayoralty were invited to meet with the council’s executive at private dinners, raising questions of transparency.

None of these issues alter the reality that local and regional councils are responsible for many services that impact New Zealanders’ daily lives. Water, housing, transport, rubbish, and parking to name a few. Councils manage libraries, and other public services such as pools, playgrounds, and parks. So, voting in the local body elections really does matter.

It’s important that New Zealanders take the time to find out about the candidates and their policies. While it can be hard to work out who to vote for in an election that has more independents than those supported by parties, this year’s elections should have been at least slightly easier with the dissolution of district health boards.

As well as reading the brochure that comes out with voting papers, voters can find information about candidates and their policies on policy.nz. The media is also a good source of information about campaigns around the country, some have had with a particular focus on highlighting those running for office under the Voice for Freedom banner who, it has been reported, are planning to make New Zealand ungovernable.

There can be no doubt that discussions about how to increase voter turnout will continue after this election. In the meantime, just vote. The people who are elected in local body elections make decisions that impact New Zealanders’ day-to-day lives. Postal voting closes on Tuesday 4 October and final voting closes at midday on Saturday 8 October.

Don’t forget to have your say. The last day to post your election papers in an NZPost Box Tuesday 4 October or into a council office or local voting box by noon Saturday 8 October.