Why we didn't vote: How to fix voter turnout at local elections
Close to half of eligible voters in Nelson and Tasman didn't vote in the local elections. Jonathan Carson reports on the colossal challenge of engaging communities in local politics.
Brian McGurk knocked on more than 10,000 doors in the three months leading up to the local government election.
The re-elected Nelson City Councillor spoke to thousands of people about the election, local politics and his campaign and said he often walked away feeling deflated.
Why? A significant number of those he talked with didn't care about the election, didn't see the relevance of the council and weren't going to vote.
"One of the things that really came out is the disengagement is not restricted to age or background or particular locations – it's more widespread," McGurk said.
"I talked to some people who are my age and older, they were just quite disinterested. They weren't interested in local politics, didn't think it was relevant.
"In some cases, it was quite disenchanting when people said: I can't be bothered."
McGurk said more people seemed to know about the election in the United States than the one happening in Nelson.
He also found that up to 12 per cent of the people he spoke to hadn't received voting papers, despite many being enrolled and living at the same address for years.
The preliminary voter turnout for Nelson was 52.12 per cent.
Once special votes are counted, it's possible that voter turnout will equal or surpass the 52.18 per cent of the 2013 election. In Tasman, the turnout was only 49.36 per cent.
But it still means that close to half of the population that was eligible to vote, didn't vote.
It could have been worse. In Auckland, Tauranga and Christchurch, voter turnout was less than 40 per cent. Wellington's was only 45.5 per cent.
Dr Bryce Edwards, a lecturer in politics at the University of Otago, said provincial centres tended to have higher voter turnout than big cities. That wasn't to say 52 per cent participation in the local election was a good thing.
"It's a terrible thing. I don't think there's really anyone saying lower voter turnout is a good thing," Edwards said.
"But it does at least show that there's a problem. It does indicate that there's something going wrong and it points to dissatisfaction or the fact that there's some alienation from within the electorate from the democratic process."
Kerry Neal, vice-chairman of the Nelson Residents' Association, has also witnessed that dissatisfaction in the community. He's helped to man a booth in the city centre where he's spoken to hundreds of people about the election.
"We've been sitting in town there for six months," Neal said. He said people were tired of being "constantly disappointed" by the council.
"They've had enough of voting for people that let them down."
Whatever the reasons, the numbers don't lie. Thousands of people in Nelson aren't engaged with local politics.
There has been a lot of talk about removing the barriers to people voting.
McGurk said more could be done to explore online voting. It works in Estonia, but there they all carry national identification cards.
Nelson councillor Matt Lawrey said he worried that the voting process was "obsolete" for young people who did most of their communication, including banking, online.
Another option was making the local election more of an "occasion" by having a specific voting day, McGurk said, or shortening the three-week voting period.
He said continuing to rely solely on postal voting was "the definition of madness" – doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Edwards said we should be careful not to get too focussed on "technical fixes" – things like online voting or changing the voting period – to address voter turnout.
"Those things are worth looking at and we do want to reduce all barriers to make it as easy as possible for people to vote. I'm not really sure the barriers are the problem at the moment. There's a deeper problem with how the system's working and with democracy."
Edwards said the solutions need to start at the top – with the councillors.
"It's the way the political system works that needs to change. If the politicians themselves aren't offering anything inspiring enough, if they're not mobilising people, then that's the problem."
He said involving political parties in the local election process might help to engage voters. Council candidates aligning with National, Labour, or the Greens, provided easy-to-understand "labels" for voters, he said.
"Standing on behalf of political parties, it gives a bit of a cue to voters that they know what they're standing for."
That way, it was also in the interests of parties to appoint quality candidates in local elections as any fallout would reflect badly on them.
Edwards said it was also important to have major election issues to polarise candidates and the community. "When there are big issues that divide people, such as the Southern Link, that does make it more meaningful."
Edwards was attending a workshop on civics education – teaching students about government processes and voting – at parliament on Monday. So changing the school curriculum is being looked at seriously.
Lawrey said he would be speaking to Nelson mayor Rachel Reese this week about implementing a Nelson City Council community outreach programme to educate the public about local politics.
"I think the place to start doing that is schools," he said. "I think there should be councillors in front of a school or classroom every week talking about what council does and why it's important."
He said the low voter turnout wasn't necessarily because people didn't care.
"I think it's really a foreign process to them," he said.
"What people do respond well to is human beings talking to them in a way that they can understand."