Robert Peden: Get to the ballot box - it's a privilege

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

The Electoral Commission wants every eligible New Zealander, whether citizen or permanent resident, to enrol and vote in this year's general election.

The majority of people in this world have little or no say in who governs them. In New Zealand we get to choose. The right to vote in free and fair elections is a rare and valuable privilege which we should not take for granted.

Most New Zealanders still vote in parliamentary elections but a growing number are choosing not to. They believe their vote does not matter, that it has no value. They are wrong. It matters, not just to them and those they care about but to all of us. A healthy democracy depends on people taking part. It is in everyone's interests that we all vote.

The last three decades have seen voter turnout fall dramatically in New Zealand - from 89 per cent in 1981 to 69 per cent of eligible voters in 2011. This is not a problem unique to New Zealand. Turnout has been declining steadily in most developed democracies. But New Zealand's downward trend is particularly steep.

We may still be well ahead of countries such as the UK, Canada and the US, but we are catching up fast. If this steep downward trend continues, New Zealand faces turnout rates of around 50 per cent within the next three decades.

This is not the future most New Zealanders would want. Maintaining a healthy democracy is in our national interest. It is the quintessential public good.

New Zealand used to be a world leader in voter participation and we can be again.

The Electoral Commission believes New Zealand needs to develop a strategy to nurture and celebrate its democratic culture and values and encourage participation. Turning the current trend around will not be easy and a concerted effort will be required from all sectors of society.

If any country is well-placed to achieve this it is New Zealand. We are a small, well-educated nation with a proud democratic tradition. It is easy to enrol and vote here. We have enjoyed free and fair elections for almost the entirety of our constitutional history. Our first parliamentary election was in 1853, just 13 years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Having achieved male suffrage in 1879, we were, in 1893, the first nation to adopt universal suffrage, 27 years before the US, 35 years ahead of the UK, and 78 years before Switzerland.

This year, then, let us talk about why democracy is important to us. Talk to the new voters and non-voters among your whanau and friends. Talk about why democracy matters to you. Talk about the issues that are important to you, at home, at work and in your community. Talk about the fact you vote not just for yourself but for those you care about, now and in the future.

And if you are thinking of not voting at this year's election, please think again.

Robert Peden is the chief executive of the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission is an Independent Crown Entity responsible for the administration of New Zealand's parliamentary elections.

- NZ Herald

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