Editorial: Low voting turnout a product of many factors

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Young people feel shortchanged by politicians over the fullness or relevance of campaign debates. Photo / Martin Sykes
Young people feel shortchanged by politicians over the fullness or relevance of campaign debates. Photo / Martin Sykes

Until 30 or so years ago, it was customary for 85 to 90 per cent of those New Zealanders eligible to vote in general elections to do so. From that standpoint, the worry aroused by that figure sliding to 68.8 per cent on Saturday has an obvious validity.

In sum, a million eligible people did not bother to vote. Yet it would be wise to keep this in perspective. The long-term decline in voting, especially by young adults, is far from restricted to this country. Add in some peculiarities associated with Saturday's poll and the turnout becomes more explicable.

Probably the most notable of these is that many saw the result as a foregone conclusion.

It is telling that the previous lowest turnout occurred in 2002. Just 72.5 per cent of those eligible voted in a contest that pitted a high-flying Helen Clark against Bill English and a struggling National Party. The similarity with an unconvincing Phil Goff confronting John Key is readily apparent.

It did not help, either, that while Labour advanced new policies, such as a tax on capital gains, and National had the contentious part-sale of state assets on its programme, these did not spark fierce debate.

Part of the reason for this may have been the truncated campaign.

Rugby's World Cup cut back the time for the presenting and dissection of policies. And the euphoria associated with the All Blacks' victory meant some people's interest in the election came belatedly, if ever. Given the short duration of the campaign, it did not help that parties generally have reduced their direct contact with voters, whether by door-knocking or telephone.

Other factors have also been advanced. A Statistics New Zealand analyst has suggested many migrants could be among those who failed to vote. If so, that is understandable. It takes time for immigrants to accustom themselves to the politics, issues and voting systems of a new country. Quite reasonably, they may not feel well enough informed to vote soon after arriving. That, however, will change over time for most immigrants. Nonetheless, a country that approves about 45,000 new migrants annually can expect their behaviour to depress turnout statistics.

Various means of reversing the current trend have been suggested. One is online voting. Obviously, this would be more convenient and be welcomed by younger voters. But it is unlikely to provide more than a temporary boost, just as postal voting triggered a short-term leap in turnout when it was introduced for local-body elections. There is, in fact, no instant panacea save for the compulsion that applies for the likes of the Australian federal elections.

Civic issues are discussed more widely than ever in today's schools, and the struggles of the Egyptian people and others provide a ready pointer to the importance of the vote. Yet many young people are still disinclined to participate. They, and some others, feel shortchanged by politicians over the fullness or relevance of campaign debates. Yet their interest will return if they are galvanised by a party leader or a burning issue.

In some cases, when politicians or policies fail to inspire or connect, abstention is a perfectly reasonable option. Certainly, it is not fair to suggest non-voters have no right to complain about the consequences of an election. That right comes from paying taxes, not voting.

Undoubtedly more people stay away from polling stations because of apathy or a sense of disconnection. That remains a persistent concern. Even if certain quirks explain much of Saturday's low turnout, the unfortunate outcome is that Parliament has become less and less truly representative of New Zealanders.

- NZ Herald

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