Apathy leading contender at the polls

Last updated 05:00 03/10/2013

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Voting packs are lying ignored in households around the region as residents switch off from local-body elections, sparking calls for a radical overhaul.

Votes votes are trickling in to electoral officers, with Hamilton currently the worst performing.

Just 9.8 per cent of the city's 100,000 voter ballot papers had been received by Tuesday - 25 per cent below 2010 returns.

The trend is being seen around the country, with Dunedin's returns currently running at roughly half the tally at the same time in the last elections.

Education, more money and electoral reforms are suggested as the answer by commentators - none of whom believed compulsory voting would help.

Massey University academic Dr Andy Asquith, a local government and public management specialist, said there was no silver bullet to local turnouts that have steadily been falling despite politicians offering up "laudable words".

He said the disconnect between councils and their constituents, confusion over the role of elected members, and the public's lack of understanding about the importance of voting were all factors in declining turnouts.

Local politicians had two roles: to be "our voice", and making sure the organisation was well governed, but often became mired down in the latter, he said.

That left local politicians "appearing" every three years at election time, he said, when they had a responsibility to be far more visible mid-term.

He also believed national political parties should stand candidates in local races.

"If we have party politics in local elections, you'll actually know what candidates are standing for."

Another initiative he believed would improve voter turnout would be civic education classes in schools, to try and head off young voters' apathy.

Research suggested that young people who didn't vote in their first two elections after turning 18 were unlikely to ever vote, said Asquith.

He doubted there would be any political appetite for compulsory voting.

According to Local Government New Zealand, an increase in the 2010 vote was due to a record turnout in the newly amalgamated Auckland Council and higher than usual voter turnout in post-earthquake Christchurch City, whereas most councils elsewhere saw further declines in their turnouts.

LGNZ president Lawrence Yule said millions were spent raising voter awareness for general elections, and he wanted to "have a conversation" with internal affairs officials about the prospect of similar effort for local government. He believed postal voting had "trivialised the decision-making process" for voters selecting candidates.

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"I think we need to look at electronic voting in a serious way.

"That is how young people particularly, and a lot of others, do things," said Yule.

The council sector advocate also criticised the length of the voting period, suggesting three weeks should be cut to between a week and 10 days.

Hamilton West MP Tim Macindoe led an inquiry into the 2011 general election as then chairman of the electoral and justice select committee.

He said many young people didn't seem to feel any need to be involved, and that trials of electronic voting in 2016 would likely be part of the solution.

Macindoe agreed that civics classes in schools would help and he was interested in the idea of national parties standing candidates.

- Fairfax Media

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