Minority rules in low voter turnout

Last updated 05:00 13/10/2013

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Local Body Elections

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Once again fewer than half of eligible New Zealanders bothered to vote in local elections, with turnout likely to match the lowest-ever effort in 2007.

Online voting, a shorter voting window and forcing candidates to come clean about their political affiliations were all touted last night as ways to drag voter turnout up from a predicted final figure of 44 per cent.

Labour's local government spokesman, Su'a William Sio, backed a suggestion from Massey University academic Andy Asquith that candidates be told to run under party flags if they were members.

Local Government New Zealand chairman Lawrence Yule, re-elected yesterday as mayor of Hastings, said it was time to dump postal voting in favour of e-voting, with figures again expected to show 18- to 25-year-olds were least likely to vote.

But youth organisation Generation Zero blamed that statistic on the "overwhelming" way young people were presented with information about candidates.

Voting rates nearly reached 50 per cent in 2010, but that spike was attributed to the new Auckland super-city and intense interest in the Christchurch mayoral race. Both cities saw significant falls yesterday and overall figures showed a return to a steady downward trend dating back to 1989.

In Auckland, turnout dropped from 50 to 33 per cent. In Christchurch, it fell from 52 to 40 per cent. Mackenzie district voters were most civic-minded (61 per cent), Hurunui in Canterbury the least (31 per cent).

Auckland mayor Len Brown joined Yule in advocating for e-voting, which is due to be trialled at 2016 local polls, but that was dismissed by Asquith, a local government expert.

"Postal voting doesn't seem to have worked but I really don't think e-voting is the answer," Brown said. "There seems to be this perception that if we bring in e-voting, all of a sudden, everyone is going to fall over themselves to click the mouse and vote.

"But we still have this fundamental issue that nobody knows who their councillor is and what council does, and until we address that you can have any system you like - you can have compulsory voting even - but if people don't know what the hell they are voting for, it's pointless."

Asquith said compulsory voting (used in Australia) wouldn't force up turnout: "If we did that, we'd better turn ourselves into an island prison, the Alcatraz of the South Pacific, because everyone would be incarcerated [for not voting]."

Madeleine Foreman from Generation Zero agreed that e-voting was not the "silver bullet" and said young people needed more education and better engagement and a "national conversation" about what local government actually did.

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"Often people say young voters are apathetic, but that's due to a lack of information," said Foreman. "It is an information overload and there is a general confusion about what local governments do, and it's hard to understand how candidates differ when they all use the same words like vision and inspiration."

Yule supported e-voting because it might make candidates engage more with voters: "People are over looking at boring old photos in an election brochure. People want it to be more interactive, to ask questions and see YouTube videos, so these are things we need to engage with."

He advocated for cutting the voting window to a week, instead of a month, saying postal ballots "trivialised" voting: "We need to make a bigger event of the election itself."

For Labour's Sio, a combination of electronic, postal and ballot-box voting, as used in the recent Labour leadership contest, was the answer: "We all lead such busy lives; I think there is a strong desire for people to participate but options aren't necessarily there."

He readily threw his support behind a call from Asquith for candidates to admit their political affiliations.

Sio said Labour in his area, Otara and Mangere, ran a branded ticket for local board candidates because if "you are upfront with who you are, people have confidence in who you are. Otherwise they are left to try and guess who you are and what you stand for".

Lianne Dalziel, who stood down as a Labour MP only last month, won the Christchurch mayoralty as an Independent, and across the country there were examples of former MPs winning local board seats and mayoralties without declaring party histories.

- Sunday Star Times

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