What's behind low voter turnout?

Last updated 07:13 10/10/2013

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OPINION: It's not how difficult it is to vote but the nature of local government politics that's behind low turnouts, argues Don Day.

This year's triennial local body elections are raising concerns among local councils and others about an impending low turnout and electors are being urged to register their votes before Saturday's deadline.

Apart from a blip in 2010, in recent years the trend for voter turnout at local elections has been downward. And even in 2010 when there was an increase, overall voter turnout was still less than 50 per cent.

Following each local election, the Department of Internal Affairs produces detailed election statistics which include comparative information going back over all events since local government reorganisation in 1989 and in some cases even earlier.

A section of the report is devoted to voter turnout and the 2010 report concluded that "a range of factors impact on voter turnout". It defines these as underlying factors and particular local issues.

Underlying factors are described in the report as ongoing institutional arrangements relating to local elections, the characteristics of the particular electorate in terms of such things as size and its urban-rural character, and also the vicissitudes of elector behaviour.

Vicissitudes in the context of this report could be taken to mean changeable behaviour by electors.

The report goes on to state that elector behaviour in turn is influenced by levels and availability of information and the perceived costs and benefits of voting at an election such as convenience and time involved, against the influence electors perceive they may be able to bring to bear.

Elector behaviour is also referred to in recent statements from Local Government New Zealand which, as a representative organisation for local government, is concerned about declining voter turnout. It quotes research into why people do, or do not exert their right to vote and appears to take some comfort from the results which recorded that (only) 14 per cent of people are genuinely not interested.

The rest, those who one could assume were genuinely interested, either did not know enough about the candidates, forgot, or were too busy to vote.

Local Government New Zealand has also come out in support for online voting for local elections which the Government has announced will be trialled in 2016.

According to LGNZ president Lawrence Yule "we need to modernise our voting systems to ensure greater participation".

This view is supported by Porirua Mayor, Nick Leggett who says "it's important we offer voting channels that reflect modern lifestyles, preferences and time pressures".

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One can't help but take from this that there is a belief that by adding more tools, the problems of low voter turnout will be resolved. But will they?

If it was that simple how come general elections record voter turnout almost double that of local elections? To vote for your preferred MP or political party you must physically leave home, go to a polling booth, line up to register and then actually vote.

This seems to me to be way more difficult, time consuming and downright inconvenient than voting in a local election from the comfort of your own home. So, are the tools really the main problem?

LGNZ chief executive Malcolm Alexander has commented on the results of the research into voter turnout by referring to low turnout as apathy.

But in many local authority districts people can think of issues that have been very controversial and which have been vigorously contested, which begs the question are people really that disinterested and indifferent.

Maybe, just maybe it might have something to do with voter mind-set and the way we are conditioned to think about our local councils.

The local council is the organisation everyone loves to hate. They are continually being lambasted for setting rates too high, paying their staff too much, having no accountability, not listening to their stakeholders, pre-determining issues, and so it goes on.

Who, in their right mind wants to be a part of that? Even though, in reality for most of the time, local councils are head-down tail- up giving fantastic service to their communities and ensuring that we all enjoy a pretty good quality of life.

I applaud the people who put their names forward because it takes a lot of courage and determination as well as a very thick skin. But why is there so much negativity?

One could say the complexity of local elections simply puts people off. In a general election for members of Parliament it is a simple matter of selecting a preferred candidate and a political party.

But for local elections it is much more complicated than that. The mayoralty, at-large councillors, ward councillors, community board members, regional councillors, district health board members. With so many candidates and decisions to make it is little wonder that many people decide it is just all too hard and put the paper aside.

On the other hand, it could have something to do with the way local government connects, or stays disconnected, from its community and stakeholders during the entire electoral term.

Since the emergence of public consultation as a valid part of decision-making during the last century, society has continued to increase its demand to be involved in public policy decisions that affect peoples' lives.

Sadly, councils have not kept pace and their 20th century approach to public participation frequently riles their communities which accuse them of not listening, predetermining issues and making it as difficult as possible for the public to be involved. So the public perception is largely negative.

Is it possible that if councils were more inclusive and engaging, actively listened to their citizens, allowed themselves and their decisions to be influenced by the people impacted by them, they could build social capital and a much more vibrant and connected community who in turn could be much more interested, not only in voting but also being more involved as elected members? Don Day is a director of Engagementworks Limited, a Wellington- based business specialising in community engagement

- The Dominion Post

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