Editorial: Whatever the factors in switching people off elections, just get out and vote

Will prospective council candidates have to resort to increasingly bizarre tactics to get noticed by apathetic voters? ...
HAMISH McNEILLY

Will prospective council candidates have to resort to increasingly bizarre tactics to get noticed by apathetic voters? An aquatic election hoarding for Lee Vandervis in Dunedin has been raising eyebrows.

It really isn't difficult.

Put a tick against the ward and community board candidates, and mayor, of your choice, and rank the nominees for your district health board. You have four days to go before local elections close at midday Saturday.

Why is such a simple act seemingly such a challenge for so many? Only about a quarter of Christchurch residents eligible to vote have so far returned their forms, a huge concern for those who value democracy and those who want as many as people as possible involved in the city's post-quake rejuvenation.

Apathy about politics, especially of the local body variety, is nothing new. And in our increasingly digitally savvy society the idea of postal voting has passed the point of merely seeming a little quaint and is now cumbersome and out-of-date, which helps fuel the views of some of those who consider politics irrelevant.

Associate professor Bronwyn Hayward of the University of Canterbury's political science department thinks there are many factors at play in Christchurch which jeopardise the health of democracy and the integrity of the electoral system.

Hayward believes the repercussions from the earthquakes have heightened voter disengagement. Rather than apathy being the root cause of that, she says it is actually a "perfect storm" of circumstances that is leading to a form of "vote suppression".

A transient population, new ward boundaries, a lack of candidates and competition, social inequalities and the Government's heavy hand guiding many of the city's major rebuild projects are combining forces, she says, to overwhelm and further discourage voters by strengthening their view of being unimportant and uninfluential in the grand scheme of things.

Hayward's diagnosis makes sense and she is right to be concerned about its ramifications. On the positive side, she thinks the feeling that matters are out of the hands of voters will fix itself as the Government withdraws from the city.

Quake malaise would appear to be a significant component of this disinterest. Prior to 2010 the city had higher than average engagement in civic affairs; now, voter turnout so far has been the lowest of the past three elections. Hayward estimates it will take another couple of elections to redress the balance. 

Democracy in New Zealand is under threat every day. That may sound melodramatic but it is true, as former New Zealand Herald editor-in-chief and now University of Auckland academic Gavin Ellis argues in his book Complacent Nation.

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Government ministers and their departments constantly play fast and loose with public information through their manipulation of the Official Information Act. Meanwhile, a majority of New Zealanders remain comfortably in their own worlds, Ellis says, unfazed at such hurdles being built to their right to know.

Of all the cities in New Zealand, it is arguably quake-struck Christchurch where the people's voice matters the most. Read the letters columns of The Press or comments on the Stuff website and it is clear there are many in Christchurch who have major beefs about what is happening in their city.

If you don't vote, you are not playing your part in the city's rebuild.

Vote, before it is too late.

 - Stuff

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