Why such a low voter turnout in 2011?

20:43, Apr 30 2012

In Dunedin, on July 14, 1984, it snowed.

One of those raw Southern days when the wind blows straight from the pole, Election Day 1984 arrived with the sort of weather most elderly people could have been forgiven for avoiding.

But, bundled up against the cold, I found myself trudging up Carroll St behind a very old woman. Bent against the wind, with snow in her hair, she put one foot in front of the other, using her walking stick to push her frail body up the hill toward the polling booth.

As I overtook her, I paused and asked if she needed any help.

"No thank you, dear," she smiled, "I can get rid of that bastard Muldoon all on my own."

It was the high water mark of voter participation in New Zealand: never before, and never since, have so many registered voters participated in a general election. One or two electoral contests had come close, but the turnout of 1984, at 93 per cent, was the all-time record.


How, then, to explain the record low participation rate of 2011?

Barely two-thirds of eligible voters bothered to cast a vote at last year's election. For one reason or another, an astonishing one million New Zealanders never made it to a polling-booth. Not since the years prior to the introduction of universal suffrage in 1893 has New Zealand recorded such a poor democratic performance.

Sharp explanatory differences have emerged between political scientists in relation to last year's abysmal turnout. The veteran psephologist, and Professorial Fellow in Political Science at Victoria University, Nigel Roberts, seems to think the fault lies with us, the people.

Too many of us, he suggests, have failed to fulfil our democratic duty, and for this failure we must be punished by Parliament. That's right, the former professor believes New Zealanders, like Australians, should be legally required to present themselves at the polling stations.

Mandatory participation, argues Roberts, would have the (presumably beneficial) effect of negating the political advantages accruing to well-organised and well-funded political parties.

If we're all legally required to turn up at the polling stations, then all political parties will compete for votes on the same footing: the least effective having as much chance of winning support as the most effective.

This approach doubtless outrages Dr Bryce Edwards, a political scientist teaching at the University of Otago, who blames the low turnout of 2011 on the politicians: "It should be embarrassing for politicians and political parties because they're the people that aren't having their product bought."

The findings of a survey of 272 non-voters conducted on behalf of the Electoral Commission tends to support Edwards' contention. Roughly a third of non-voting respondents stated that they either did not trust politicians, or that they "just [weren't] interested in politics".

It is instructive (and not a little depressing) to contrast the findings of the Electoral Commission's survey with the attitude of that elderly woman trudging up Carroll St in the snow to cast her ballot.

Clearly, she placed no trust in the Government of Sir Robert Muldoon, but that lack of trust, far from being a reason not to vote, was her prime motivation for weathering the snowstorm.

And, equally clearly, this woman was interested in politics, and knew exactly what was at stake in the snap election of 1984.

Her faith in the power of her vote burned brightly on that grey Dunedin day, and so did her faith in the political alternative to the Muldoon-led National Party Government.

On July 14, 1984, David Lange led a Labour Party which had yet to openly embrace the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Not even I - a Labour activist responsible for the publicity of one of Dunedin's Labour candidates - had any clear idea of the terrible betrayals that lay ahead (although there were disquieting signs).

As I made my own way up Carroll St I was relishing the prospect of New Zealand being declared nuclear-free; of compulsory unionism being restored; of the wage/price freeze being lifted; and of a decisive break with the apartheid regime in South Africa.

And it is here that my own views, and those of Edwards begin to mesh. On Bastille Day 1984, for those who did not subscribe to Muldoon's ideas about how to run the New Zealand economy; for those who rejected his interpretation of the Anzus Treaty and were furious at his refusal to sever all ties with the South African racists; there was a political alternative. Or, so we thought.

Chief Electoral Officer Roger Peden says he is deeply concerned at the long-term steep decline in voter participation since the record turnout of 1984. The year when voting was worth braving a snowstorm.

The Press