Bryce Edwards: No confidence in dire local govt elections

Bryce Edwards: No confidence in dire local govt elections

The “No Confidence” vote in local body elections could be as high as 60 per cent by the end of this week. That’s essentially what it is when only 40 per cent of the public choose to vote, which is what is happening at the moment. In fact, voter turnout is trending lower, meaning New Zealand could be headed for a record low voter turnout (and hence a record no confidence vote in politicians).

The reality is clear: the vast majority of the public are not inspired by what’s on offer from candidates across the country and voters aren’t convinced that voting in local elections really matters.

Voter turnout was supposed to increase in 2022

This year’s extremely low voter turnout is occurring despite circumstances that should be driving increased public involvement. Firstly, there are a large number of very competitive mayoral elections taking place – in which the likely outcome is far from decided. In Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, and Invercargill, for instance, it’s not clear who will win, and a number of new mayors are likely to be elected. This situation normally drives up turnout.

In addition, there are a number of factors that many commentators and authorities believed would drive up participation:

  • The new Māori wards in many elections were supposed to provide for better representation of an historically under-represented demographic
  • There is increased media coverage of local elections and, in particular, a plethora of voices explaining the need for people to vote
  • The Three Waters reforms have provided a contentious public issue for voters to vote for or against as candidates take a pro or anti Three Waters stance
  • A much more demographically diverse range of candidates – women, Māori, young people, and so forth – standing was said to help boost turnout amongst sections of the public put off by so-called “pale, stale, and male” incumbents
  • Local government authorities have produced huge publicity and advertising campaigns, normally incorporating te reo Māori and an emphasis on diversity, to get people enthused about democracy.

None of these factors appear to have had a significant impact in lifting voting so far. Perhaps some of these dynamics have actually had a counterintuitively negative impact.

Could it be that the low voter turnout reflects contentment?

Of course, there are plenty of explanations for the public choosing not to vote. Some politicians and commentators have been attempting to put a more positive spin on the declining voter turnout. Much of this looks like wishful thinking. They say the declining voter turnout simply reflects public satisfaction with the politicians and their local authorities. Voters are content to just let the politicians continue doing their good work without the scrutiny and evaluation of voting.

But there is absolutely no evidence to support the view that the low voter turnout reflects contentment. In fact, there is strong evidence throughout the country that the public’s unhappiness with councils has reached an all-time high.

Surveys carried out by local authorities show that dissatisfaction with individual councils is very strong this year. For example, in Wellington, when the public were asked this year about satisfaction with council decision-making, the number of those who are “satisfied” dropped to a new low of only 12 per cent, while those who said they are “dissatisfied” jumped to 52 per cent. Similarly, those who believe that the Council makes decisions that are in best interests of the city has plummeted from 50 per cent to just 17 per cent this year.

It seems that throughout the country there is a similar level of anger and disenchantment with local politicians which should dispel any rosy idea that lower voter turnout is in some way positive.

Those pushing the “contentment theory” of low voter turnout also have to grapple with the fact that non-voters are disproportionately made up of the poor and marginalised of society. Evidence shows it’s the wealthier demographics that vote in much larger numbers than others.

For example, suburb comparisons in the 2019 Rotorua Lakes Council elections showed that the higher turnouts were from residents from wealthier housing locations, and vice versa.

Overall in Rotorua the turnout was 45 per cent, but for the affluent suburbs the turnout rates were much higher, and for the lower socio-economic areas the voting rates were about a third of this.

For example, in Rotorua’s flash suburb of Springfield, 59 per cent voted, in leafy Lynmore it was 57 per cent, and wealthy Kaharoa had a turnout rate of 56 per cent.

However, the poorer suburbs had abysmal turnout rates. In disadvantaged Western Heights it was only 27 per cent, and in the poorest area of Fordlands voter turnout was an incredible 18 per cent.

This pattern was borne out by a 2015 Auckland Council study that showed significant variation in voter turnout according to socioeconomic status.

It goes to show just how much participation in elections is a function of socio-economics. And so, a discussion of voter turnout must involve an awareness that elections in New Zealand are primarily determined by wealth.

Local government isn’t working

It seems that local government isn’t working for most people. And this is especially the case for the poor. Increasingly there is a feeling that local government – much like central government – has become dysfunctional and captured by vested interests and elites.

All around the world voter turnout has generally been on the decline over the last few decades, driven by waning trust in authorities and politics. And this is evident in the rise of populist nationalism and the increased peddling of conspiracy theories.

A 17 per cent turnout in amongst poorer communities speaks to something rotten in our democratic processes. Fixing this won’t involve superficial and mechanical changes to voting systems or just more public education. A much bigger examination of the failings of our political system is necessary, and this needs to include looking at wider societal problems.

Without big change, our elections will decline further in legitimacy. As today’s New Zealand Herald points out, the Prime Minister is being “asked this week to speculate on how low the turnout threshold should be for local elections to be considered valid”. She won’t answer this. But someone is going to have to engage very quickly.

What is clear is that blaming voters for being uninspired by the candidates and the system of local government is not the answer. The public – and especially poorer New Zealanders – will just keep essentially voting “No confidence” in larger and larger numbers until it’s impossible for this message to be ignored or misunderstood.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  


Further reading on Local Government Elections

Bernard Orsman (Herald): Local body elections: Christchurch leads voting turnout among the big cities; Wellington last
Herald Editorial: Who’s to blame when local elections fail to excite voters? (paywalled)
Brad Olsen (Infometrics): Chart of the month: Time for some local democracy
Adam Burns (RNZ): Local body elections: Late voters urged to cast special votes
Bernard Orsman (Herald): Local body elections: Christchurch leads voting turnout among the big cities; Wellington last
Felix Desmarais (Local Democracy Reporting): Rotorua voter turnout steady but voters urged to ‘make their vote count’
The Facts: Only 21% of votes returned with 5 days left + exclusive new polling
Sinead Gill (Stuff): Lorde ‘told off’ after breaking electoral rule
David Farrar: The Labour loyalty pledge
Michael Sergel (Herald): Five issues dividing Auckland election candidates
1News: Ardern throws support behind Collins’ Auckland mayoralty campaign
Tim Murphy (Newsroom): Brown momentum vs Collins machine
No Right Turn: The “endorsement” you give when you want someone to lose
Dita De Boni (NBR): Wayne Brown’s good points flushed away by urinal comments(paywalled)
Katie Townshend (Stuff): Five things you may not realise your local council does
Stewart Sowman-Lund (Spinoff): Race briefing: Can the country’s youngest mayor make it two for two?


Other items of interest and importance today

Sam Hurley (Herald): Labour and National donations trial: Guilty and not guilty verdicts over political money
Catrin Owen (Stuff): Jami-Lee Ross not guilty in political donations case, businessmen found guilty
Tim Murphy (Newsroom): Ex MP Jami-Lee Ross cleared of fraud charges

George Block (Herald): Former Cabinet minister Kris Faafoi to head new lobbying and PR firm (paywalled)
Catrin Owen (Stuff): Political donations case: Jami-Lee Ross, businessmen set to hear verdict
Stuff: Ex-minister Kris Faafoi is now a lobbyist and PR guy
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): New Roy Morgan Poll – Labour Crash
Annabel Ahuriri-Driscoll (The Conversation): When is being Māori not enough? Why Māori politics are always personal
Tova O’Brien (Today FM): I can’t decide whether four year political terms are really what NZ needs
Duncan Garner (NBR): National has to offer tax cuts – but to who, how and when?(paywalled)
Waatea News: Davis apologises but ACT policy still racist
Matthew Hooton: Act’s terrible dilemma (paywalled)

Gavin Ellis: Government media teams that breach the law
Elspeth McLean (ODT): Ombudsman ambitions killed off by lack of respect for OIA

Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Covid bloodbath expected as Government opens books today
Richard Harman: Another shot into Labour’s re-election chances (paywalled)
RNZ: Tax rates a factor for attracting candidates for top jobs, Luxon says
Brooke van Velden (Herald): What Liz Truss-led economic turmoil in UK can teach NZ(paywalled)
Robert MacCulloch: National and Labour economic policy summed up in a few lines
Tim Hunter (NBR): Council calls in PwC to review Eke Panuku deals (paywalled)

Sam Olley (RNZ): Emergency housing: Government warned of human rights risks years ago, documents reveal
David Farrar: A 421 day waiting list for a state house for the most needy
Dileepa Fonseka (Stuff): Why I’d be happy to see more ghost homes
RNZ: Housing market still firmly in retreat – CoreLogic
Ireland Hendry-Tennent (Newshub): Timing the market: Is now the best time to buy a house or should you wait for prices to drop further? An expert weighs in
Anne Gibson (Herald): ‘One of worst times for NZ house values’: New CoreLogic data shows falls continue

Alexa Cook (Newshub): Government increases GP funding, but sector worries it won’t fix crippling doctor shortage
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Andrew Little announces GP pay bump and push to increase doctor numbers

David Fisher (Herald): New book on Five Eyes spying club explains NZ’s role in world’s largest intelligence network (paywalled)
Thomas Manch (Stuff): Solomon Islands foreign minister says his country will not ‘choose sides’
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Solomon Islands unhappy with indirect China references in draft agreement with Washington, insists it would not ‘choose sides’
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Nanaia Mahuta, Solomon Islands’ minister hold talks in ‘Rainbow Room’, despite island nation’s anti-same sex policies

Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): No one screams like media dependent on NZ on Air money
Brigitte Morten (NBR): Kiwis’ trust in institutions is being tested (paywalled)
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Today FM vs ZB – has the experiment worked?
ODT Editorial: TVNZ plumbs the depths

David Bromell (Newsroom): How to argue in a free and open society
Thomas Cranmer: Three Waters and the vexed question of ownership
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Human Rights Commission tries to stuff online hate Genie back into bottle while Jacinda threatens Big Sister
Katarina Williams and Ripu Bhatia (Stuff): Teachers want ‘racist, discriminatory’ streaming system to be abolished in schools from 2030