Bryce Edwards: NZ’s looming low voter turnout shows that politics is broken

Bryce Edwards: NZ’s looming low voter turnout shows that politics is broken

With only a day to go before voting closes in the 2023 general election, the turnout so far is incredibly low. This suggests the final turnout could be the lowest in New Zealand electoral history. Such a result will reflect the fact that this year’s hollow and unsatisfactory election is a sign New Zealand politics is broken.

Advance voting and voter turnout figures

The Electoral Commission has reported that only 28.8 per cent of eligible voters have cast their votes so far – that’s 1,115,010 out of an estimated eligible population of 3,871,418. By comparison, at the same stage of the 2020 election, 46.2 per cent had voted. That’s a huge plunge in early voter turnout.

It could be that voters are waiting until tomorrow to cast their vote. That’s what some more optimistic observers are suggesting. But it’s much more likely to be an indication that fewer voters are going to turn out this time around.

The ability to cast your vote early is a relatively new concept. Until the 2011 election, almost everyone had to vote on Election Day. But since advance voting became allowed, New Zealanders have embraced voting early – with the proportion of advance voting increasing significantly in every election. By 2017 nearly half of voters did so before election day, and in 2020 about two-thirds of votes were early.

Electoral authorities forecast that this year the proportion of early votes would be even higher. This is partly because, for the first time, advance voting booths have been placed in more accessible locations such as shopping malls and supermarkets. It’s never been so easy to make an advance vote, and there has been a lot of publicity encouraging voters to take advantage of this option.

Voter turnout headed for lowest in NZ history

Historically New Zealand has had incredibly high voter turnout in elections, reaching as high as about 90 per cent in the middle of the twentieth century – more than most countries that don’t have compulsory voting. But over the last fifty years, New Zealand voter turnout, in line with the rest of the world, has been steadily trending downwards.

At the 2011 general election, the nadir of a 69.6 per cent turnout was recorded. The numbers recovered somewhat in subsequent elections, and in 2020 was the highest this century, with 77.4 per cent of eligible population voting. Note: some versions of voter turnout figures remove unenrolled voters from the calculation, but political scientists regard it as best practice to incorporate all voters in the calculation, including the 5 to 10 per cent the population that don’t enrol but are eligible to do so.

So, with a current turnout figure of only 28.8 per cent, compared to 46.2 per cent at this stage in 2020, there is a probability that final turnout will be lower than the 2020 figure. But how far will it fall? Looking at the current trajectory, it’s seems fair to suggest the final figure could fall below 70 per cent, and even end up being New Zealand’s lowest recorded turnout since universal suffrage was introduced in 1893.

A Hollow election that fails to inspire

In a previous column, I labelled the 2023 campaign “an election without inspiration” – see: A Very hollow election. In this, I argued that “There really isn’t much that is positive or attractive about the electoral options on offer” and that “the public is right to be disenchanted – parties are mostly just offering sniping and petty criticisms of their opponents.”

Other commentators have been equally scathing – it’s been called it a “campaign that’s both chaotic and boring at the same time”, a “yawnfest”, and a choice between two centrist Chrises. So, it’s not surprising that voters have been turned off by an uninspiring campaign, with uninspiring options to choose between.

As Newstalk’s Francesca Rudkin says, “our hearts aren’t quite in this election”. She reports: “Clearly people don’t like what’s on offer. There’s not a huge difference between some of the two main party’s policies or fiscal intentions. Some potential voters aren’t convinced what is being offered is enough to drive substantial change or solve the country’s pressing issues.”

It’s worth noting that something similar happened in 2011 when turnout plunged to just 69.6 per cent. The explanation then was that none of the parties were offering much that was inspiring, and no one expected the result to be close. Hence, nearly a million eligible voters turned away in that election in disgust or apathy.

This time around we have the added component of a very negative campaign. The tone has been bleak and ugly – especially with escalating allegations of racism – it is likely to push many away from participating. When things turn nasty, aggressive, and divisive, New Zealanders are repelled rather than attracted to voting.

There are plenty of other signs to suggest that the public has turned off from this election campaign. We already know that there’s a gloomy mood for change at the moment. In public surveys, about two-thirds of people say New Zealand is heading in the wrong direction.

Surveys also show that the public doesn’t have a lot of interest in the main options for fixing the problem. A Guardian-Essential survey last month found 46 per cent of voters strongly or somewhat agree with the statement that “none of the current options for prime minister really appeal to me”. For young voters, this sentiment was even higher (54 per cent).

Such a hollow election and the resulting low turnout is likely to be especially bad for the parties of the left. Traditionally lower socio-economic and younger voters are the first to turn away from the electoral process, while richer and older voters can be more assured of casting their votes

The legitimacy problem for elections and politicians

Will the authority and legitimacy of the incoming government be reduced by being elected on a very low turnout? It is likely that the “no-vote” in 2023 will hit a million people for the first time. It could even end up essentially being the most popular option at the election. Currently, National as the most popular party in opinion polls, is on track to win about a million votes too. But if National is “beaten” by the “Abstention Party”, does this bring into question the political system?

A high voter turnout is generally seen as the best evidence of the legitimacy of a political system. It means the public has faith in how the system works. Conversely, the fewer votes that are counted, the weaker the credibility of the winners and the democratic system.

Some politicians like to suggest that declining voter turnout is, in fact, a sign of contentment with the political system and that people who don’t vote are obviously reasonably satisfied with the status quo. Others cast non-voters as ignorant, apathetic or lazy.

This is a mistake. If voter turnout drops to its lowest-ever figure, it should be read as a sign that something is wrong with our democracy. It’s a warning sign of a crisis of discontentment in the political system.

Of course, this is a problem all over the world at the moment, with rising dissatisfaction and a sense that elites and vested interests dominate. There is a huge mood of change everywhere.

Writing about how dire the current election campaign is, right-wing commentator Matthew Hooton recently argued that New Zealand’s political system is effectively broken because the parties across the political system simply aren’t serious vehicles for political change anymore. He says they have been captured by careerists, consultants and lobbyists seeking power. It’s therefore not surprising to see disillusionment, disenchantment, and malaise amongst the voting public

And the problem can’t just be tweaked with a few technocratic fixes. Making voting compulsory, or even easier isn’t going to fix the problem. Major change is required to return New Zealand democracy to health. Ultimately it’s the political parties and politicians that are the problem. If the parties offered policies and options that really engaged the public, then voting would naturally increase. Put simply, voters need to feel there is something worth voting for.

In defence of non-voters

As we’ve got closer to the final vote on Saturday, authorities and commentators have been urging the public to cast their votes. And, as always, they’ve dished up the usual line about how you aren’t allowed to complain about your problems if you didn’t vote.

The condemnation of the non-voter is not progressive or helpful. It fails to recognise that most non-voters are simply alienated and marginalised by a political system that isn’t working for them. Politicians have simply failed to convince and inspire them. Many are making a deliberate decision not to participate in what they might see as a circus or a sham. And, yes, most of those people are young, poor and disadvantaged.

Of course, you should vote if you have confidence in the system and believe there are options that inspire you. But if you’re bored by it all, unimpressed with the lack of meaningful electoral options, or just, disgruntled with the state of politics in general, then it’s a legitimate option to protest by not participating. Although such a message is considered beyond the pale by the “political class”, in reality it’s your right not to endorse what might seem like an electoral sham or an illusion of democracy. Arguably, this year’s non-vote is shaping up to send a message of protest to say that the system isn’t working.

So, if you choose to boycott this year’s sad electoral circus, you’ll be in good company – you will be a supporter of the protest “Abstention Party”, the most popular force in New Zealand right now.



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

This article can be republished for free under a Creative Commons copyright-free license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project (