Tackling low voter turnouts at local body elections

In Hamilton, just 33 per cent bothered to vote in the last election.
In Hamilton, just 33 per cent bothered to vote in the last election.

OPINION: I spent about half an hour on the phone on Wednesday morning this week making sure I could exercise my democratic right to vote in the local body elections.

After wondering why our voting papers hadn't arrived in the mail, it dawned on me. We hadn't updated our electoral details since we moved houses two years ago.

It's the middle of the school holidays and with three children in tow, completing full sentences is no easy feat, let alone phone calls to Government departments or councils.

So, I did what any good mother who needs to complete a task uninterrupted does and armed each child with a screen.

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There were four short phone calls. The Electoral Commission to update my details, Hamilton City Council to get placed on the ratepayer roll and Thames Coromandel District Council and Waikato Regional Council to ask about casting a special vote, either in person at one of the local council offices, or by post.

It turns out we're eligible to vote in the Hamilton election, even though we don't live there. It's a quirk in the system which is apparently a hangover from the 19th century, when voting was tied to how much property a person owned.

It means all you need to do is own property in an electoral area to be eligible. Only one person from each household or organisation can cast a vote. I decided it should be me.

It was all very quick, painless and two out of three children were still quietly watching television by the time I finished. I even had a few minutes to spare for a coffee.

RNZ’s podcast The Detail: Local body boredom - why every council election is a fizzer. (First published August 2018)

So why aren't more people exercising their right to vote?

The lowest voter turnouts in the last local government elections were from four councils in Waikato. In Hamilton just 33 per cent bothered to vote. Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), which is the representative body for councils in New Zealand, has suggested demographics, uncontested mayoral races or apathy are the reasons.

But there are also those that don't know what local government does or who - provided the tap turns on, the toilet flushes and rubbish is collected - don't want to know.

And for all our imploring about how important the work of local government is, and how important it is to exercise your democratic right, by Wednesday this week most local authorities nationally were tracking at a similar level to this time in 2016.

In Hamilton around 12,800 people had voted.

We're told that was about 1.3 per cent more than the same time last election, but that is still only around 1300 extra people, from an enrolled population of 102,714.

Everyone has an opinion on how to turn it around. This campaign season I've read everything from proposals for online voting, compulsory voting, payment for voting, improving education around what local government does and getting more of central Government's political parties involved in local government so we have a clearer picture of where candidates sit on the political spectrum.

The most interesting one I've seen however is the idea of Localism. A paper was presented at this year's LGNZ conference and it could be coming to a city, district or region near you.

In New Zealand we have a largely centralised approach to policy development and decision making. Even when the final local government election papers are delivered and counted on October 12, it's hard to see how much will change.

Local government will continue, as it always has, and the real power will continue to be wielded by Wellington where our elected representatives still largely have little influence.

But LGNZ's localism movement plans to decentralise a lot of what central Government currently does and put it in the hands of local authorities to manage. Idealistically, it makes some sense. We're on the cusp of having to live very differently and potentially very much more locally, as we address huge challenges such as climate change, environmental degradation and poverty.

In practice however, well, imagine some of our incumbents in charge of delivering services to our communities such as social housing, social services, health or employment.

In the discussion document Dave Cull, president of LGNZ says, it's time to re-think the centralised "one size fits all" approach to running New Zealand. He says citizens have been losing their trust in public institutions and a primary illustration of that is voter participation plummeting well below what it was three decades ago.

They say the solution to this declining interest in democracy is not less democracy, but more.

So, instead of relying on central government to decide what is good for our communities, LGNZ, backed by a lobby group called the New Zealand Initiative, say it's time to empower councils and communities to make the decisions themselves.

Now pause for a moment and consider - if this happened, you'd have to start getting a little more involved in local government, wouldn't you?

Currently, 90 per cent of our taxes are controlled by central government. Localism suggests many services controlled by central Government and the funding connected to them might be better served being delivered locally.

It talks about a buoyant tax or a tax paid to local government as a way of funding this new approach, or perhaps paying for it with a share of GST from the regions around New Zealand.

A graph in the document also shows the relationship between voter turnout in local government elections and the degree to which a country is fiscally decentralised. The more decentralised a country is, the more citizens are interested in local elections, and the more they vote.

If you don't think it will ever happen, you might like to consider how the Government is now looking at our economy through a wellbeing lens. The Localism document talks a lot about wellbeing. It also says it's something best measured at a local level.

To that end Waikato has already started developing its Waikato Wellbeing Project. It's the first region in New Zealand to start one and it was launched by Finance Minister Grant Robertson in August.

Feedback on the Local Government New Zealand document is open until December 15 this year, as they prepare to take a manifesto into the 2020 general election. Visit, Localism.nz.

It's certainly something which should get people more interested in the business of local government, if they aren't already.

In the meantime, I'm planning a school holiday outing to the local council office this coming week to cast a special vote and exercise my democratic rights before October 12. It really is simple. I'm not sure why more people aren't doing it. But they aren't and it's concerning.