The vast majority of the public is not inspired by the range of candidates across the country and voters are not convinced that voting in local elections really matters, writes Bryce Edwards.
The “no confidence” vote in local elections could be as high as 60% by the end of this week. That’s essentially what it is when only 40% of the public choose to vote, which is happening right now. Voter turnout is actually falling, meaning New Zealand could be heading for a record low turnout (and thus a record of distrust in politicians).
The reality is clear: the vast majority of the public is not inspired by the range of candidates across the country and voters are not convinced that voting in local elections really matters.
Turnout should rise in 2022
This year’s extremely low turnout is happening despite circumstances that should encourage greater public engagement.
First, there are a large number of highly competitive mayoral elections, the likely outcome of which is far from decided. In Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill, for example, it is not clear who will win and a number of new mayors are likely to be elected.
This situation normally drives up attendance.
In addition, there are a number of factors that many commentators and authorities believed would encourage participation:
- The new Maori divisions in many elections were supposed to provide better representation of a historically underrepresented population group.
- There is more media coverage of local elections and, in particular, a plethora of voices explaining why people should vote.
- The Three Waters reforms have created a contentious public issue for voters to vote for or against if candidates take a pro or anti Three Waters stance.
- A much more demographically diverse set of candidates — women, Maori, youth, and so on — would help boost turnout among segments of the public deterred by the so-called “pale, musty and male” incumbents.
- Local government agencies have produced massive publicity and advertising campaigns – normally with te reo Maori and an emphasis on diversity – to get people excited about democracy.
None of these factors seem to have had a significant impact on the abolition of voting so far. Perhaps some of these dynamics have had a counterintuitive negative effect.
Could it be that the low turnout is a reflection of satisfaction?
Of course, there are plenty of explanations for the public choosing not to vote. Some politicians and commentators have tried to put a more positive spin on the declining turnout. Much of this seems like wishful thinking. They say the declining turnout is simply a reflection of the public’s satisfaction with the politicians and their local authorities. Voters are content to just let the politicians do their good work without the scrutiny and evaluation of voting.
But there is absolutely no evidence to support the view that the low turnout reflects satisfaction. In fact, there is strong evidence across the country that public discontent with guessing has reached an all-time high.
Surveys by municipalities show that dissatisfaction among the individual municipalities is very high this year. In Wellington, for example, when the public was asked this year about satisfaction with the council’s decision-making, the number “satisfied” fell to a new low of just 12%, while those who said they were “satisfied” rose. up to 52%. Likewise, those who believed the council makes decisions that were in the best interest of the city plummeted from 50% this year to just 17%.
It seems there is a similar level of anger and disenchantment with local politicians across the country, which should dispel any rosy idea that lower voter turnout is somehow a positive.
Those driving the “satisfaction theory” of low turnout must also grapple with the fact that non-voters are disproportionately made up of society’s poor and marginalized. Evidence shows that it is the wealthier populations who vote in far greater numbers than others.
For example, suburban comparisons in the 2019 Rotorua Lakes Council elections showed that the higher turnout came from residents from wealthier residential locations and vice versa.
In total, the turnout in Rotorua was 45%. But for the affluent suburbs, the turnout rates were much higher, while for the lower socio-economic areas the vote rate was about a third of this.
For example, in Springfield, the flashy suburb of Rotorua, 59% voted, in leafy Lynmore 57%, and wealthy Kaharoa had a 56% voter turnout.
The poorer suburbs, however, had a disastrous turnout. In underserved Western Heights, it was just 27%, and in the poorest part of Fordlands, turnout was an incredible 18%.
This pattern was confirmed by a 2015 Auckland Council survey which found significant variation in turnout based on socioeconomic status.
It shows how much participation in elections is a function of the social economy.
And so a discussion of voter turnout should include the realization that New Zealand elections are primarily determined by wealth.
Local government doesn’t work
It seems that the local government doesn’t work for most people. And this is especially the case for the poor. There is a growing sense that local government – like central government – has become dysfunctional and captured by vested interests and elites.
Around the world, turnout has generally declined in recent decades, driven by declining trust in authorities and politics. And this is evident in the rise of populist nationalism and the increased peddling of conspiracy theories.
A 17% turnout among poorer communities points to something rocky in our democratic processes. To solve this, there are no superficial and mechanical changes to voting systems or just more public education. A much more comprehensive examination of the shortcomings of our political system is needed, and this should also look at broader societal problems.
Without major change, our elections will continue to decline in legitimacy. As today’s New Zealand Herald points out, the prime minister is being asked this week to “speculate on how low the turnout threshold should be for local elections to be considered valid”. She won’t answer this. But someone will have to intervene very quickly.
What is clear is that blaming voters for not being inspired by the candidates and the local government system is not the solution. The public – and especially the poorer New Zealanders – will essentially just continue to vote “no confidence” in bigger and bigger numbers until there is no way this message will be ignored or misunderstood.
– dr. Bryce Edwards is a political analyst in residence at the Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.