Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Political Roundup: Is it becoming acceptable not to vote?

Two-thirds of eligible voters chose not to vote in the local government elections. Should we be unimpressed?
Should we just get rid of the voting process? Photo / Dean Purcell
Should we just get rid of the voting process? Photo / Dean Purcell

I didn't vote in the local government elections. Obviously I'm in a majority, given that about 61.5 per cent of enrolled voters also chose not to. If you then add in those who were eligible to vote, but were not enrolled (about 5 per cent of the population), it seems that about two-thirds of the public didn't bother voting this year. This appears to be new record low.

Obviously it's not just the ill-informed, lazy or apolitical who chose not to vote in 2016. In fact, a political reporter from the parliamentary press gallery told me she deliberately decided not to vote. Her decision came not from disinterest or lack of information, but after watching a mayoral debate and being unimpressed by all the candidates.

Similarly, press gallery journalist Stacey Kirk wrote in the weekend about her limited knowledge about the candidates: "Politics is my livelihood - admittedly central rather than local - but even I can't say I know anything qualitative about the candidates, aside from a handful of former MPs or Wellington City Council old-timers.

The sheer amount of work required to vote in a complicated and time-intensive system poses a massive problem for democracy and for the quality of the councils we elect" - see: Meet your new council - is it up to the job? Who knows.

Once it would have been socially unacceptable or embarrassing to admit to not voting. But perhaps it's actually becoming fashionable not to vote, and even to declare that you're not voting. For the strongest sign of this, see Heather du Plessis-Allan's column: Non-voters are the clever ones. She stands up for the non-voter: "If you haven't voted in the local body elections, don't beat yourself up. It shows you're smart enough to have worked out this whole exercise is a joke".

Her main point is that voting doesn't seem to make any difference: "You've probably figured that wasting an hour researching which candidate to vote for won't change much. Your rubbish will still be collected on Wednesday. Your library will still lend you books. Consents will still ruin your life, traffic lights will still be out of sync and water will still taste like chlorine. So don't beat yourself up. You've saved yourself a good hour."

And of course, other opinion leaders have also been illustrating why non-voting might be on the rise. Guy Williams recently wrote: "I filled out my voting papers today and holy crap, it was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. That probably says more about me sad life, but I think the important message is don't vote guys, it's not worth it" - see: Why our local elections are a shambles, and how to fix them.

Williams comically suggests that the process isn't fit for purpose: "Time for my bombshell conspiracy theory: The local council doesn't want people to vote, and intentionally makes itself inaccessible and confusing to keep voter turnout low." Furthermore, he gave an insight into how voters might make their decisions: "After voting for the first time in 2016 I can see why people said they were 'too busy'. The local health board wanted me to choose seven people... from 28... for a position I don't understand. I basically chose the ones who looked the healthiest in their profile pictures, which was hard because most of the candidates are 80 years old."

And so perhaps it would be better if some of us didn't vote. Oscar Kightley gives an insight into how some people made up their minds on who to vote for: "I conducted a very unscientific poll among friends and colleagues this week and most professed ignorance of who they were voting for. One mate even confessed to a process that seemed more akin to picking vegetables. He scanned the faces, went with a gut feeling and made sure he had plenty of variety, which I suspect was the case for many voters, whose lives allow them precious little for themselves, let alone keeping abreast of local community issues and who supports what" - see: 'The trouble is, that these elections are just so damned important'.

Too much democracy? Or not enough?

So should we just get rid of the voting process? Mike Hosking has previously declared himself a non-voter, and this year argued: "No one cares. Turnout yet again was down. The vast majority of us couldn't be bothered voting. Not interested this time, not interested last time; haven't interested for decades. The elected representatives concerned have failed for a generation to engage us. They've failed to convince us that what they do is relevant. It is time to change the system. It is time to get rid of voting for health boards. It is time to vastly reduce council sizes. It's time for more appointments, less democracy, given that we've rejected democracy as a mechanism. We need to stop the moaning about the fact it doesn't work, and actually start changing it" - watch his passionate 39-second argument: 'More appointments, less democracy needed for local body elections'.

Of course, you could take the opposite point of view - that it's actually the lack of democracy at the heart of the democratic deficit of local government politics. So, for example, du Plessis-Allan takes exception to central government dominating local government, to the point that this National Government has arbitrarily replaced elected local boards in places like Kaipara and Canterbury, and has threatened to do so with the Auckland super city - when the local performance has been deemed to be poor.

Unelected officials appear to be becoming too powerful within local government. And criticism of council CEOs has been a strong feature of this year's election campaign. So is the voter disengagement problem a direct result of unelected officials dominating local government? Chris Trotter argues that it is, and therefore the answer is for the politicians to reclaim power from the bureaucrats. He says that the sacking of elected councils by central government is just one part of this trend: "Even before the Government sacked Environment Canterbury in 2010, it was clear to voters that the ability of their elected representatives to translate election promises into practical policies had been seriously compromised. Councils no longer seemed to own and/or control anything. Services that had once been provided by the council itself were increasingly being contracted out to the private sector" - see: Democracy's disappearing hand.

According to Trotter, democracy has been sucked out of local authorities by the creation of a "professionalisation" and "political class", and it's the nature of such professionals to push the public out of any involvement or control over what they do.

The New Zealand Herald has made some similar arguments in the editorial yesterday about the Auckland council: Disillusioned public and a low turnout. Here's the main point: "The limitations of the authority of the elected mayor and council have been all too obvious over issues such as the performance of Ports of Auckland Ltd and its claims on the harbour, and the housing crisis - more accurately crises of affordability and homelessness. The council has looked to be at the mercy of demands from the Government above it, and unable to exert much influence on the largely autonomous "council-controlled organisations" Auckland Transport, Watercare, Auckland Trade, Events and Economic Development and others."

The problem requires serious reform according to the Herald: "The system is not working satisfactorily for those elected, or the public who want to hold people to account when things go wrong. If a corrective requires a change of legislation, it should be done."

And already Mayor Goff is indicating that he plans to concentrate on the problem of unelected power in his organisation, saying that there is a "Yes Minister" syndrome within council that needs tackling - see Todd Niall's Goff vows to restore public faith in Auckland Council.

Niall's article explains Goff's view: "He said the 'Yes Minister' syndrome - drawn from a British television comedy in which civil servants manipulate the politicians - reached its peak in local government, and getting rid of it would be his first message to council management." Goff is quoted saying: "Decisions made by the council will be the decisions from the elected representatives... We will listen to the advice of our political advisors but the decisions have to be those made by those held accountable by the public and not simply rubber-stamping what officials put before them".

Who else is to blame for voter turnout decline?

Central government is also blamed for taking too much power away from local authorities, thereby making them less important to vote for. This was argued today by New Zealand Initiative research fellow Jason Krupp, who says: "The role of local government has been reduced to such an extent and has so much government oversight that it doesn't matter who you vote for at the end of the day - the outcome is pretty much still the same" - see Frances Cook's Central Government blamed for low voter turnout. Krupp advocates that more power should be devolved: "These are clearly local matters that central government should leave to local communities so that you have clear lines of accountability."

Maybe there's fault with the media too. Former newspaper reporter Oscar Kightley suggests that local media isn't covering enough of what goes on, and remembers how it used to be: "These were the days when to get news, journalists would actually have to go to meetings, instead of just looking at what's big on social media... Sure there were plenty of meetings about dreary, but important stuff like drainage, parks and town planning. I felt for the reporter from the local suburban paper who would always have to attend every meeting and stay for the whole thing. But those months of seeing first hand what gets decided, and how it affects everyone who lives in the city boundaries, helped me appreciate why local government matters so much" - see: 'The trouble is, that these elections are just so damned important'.

Kightley also says, however, that the local politicians need to try harder: "My challenge to all the successful mayors and councillors is that they work hard to show us how and why what they do matters to us." He also suggests that part of the problem is that we only ever hear from or see politicians when they want our votes.

Voter contentment

But could it be that the low voter turnout is simply a reflection of general contentment with local government? Certainly some of those elected make this claim. For example in the Waimate District, "Mayor Craig Rowley said the low turnout did not necessarily reflect voter apathy" - see Daisy Hudson's Voter turnout plummets in Waimate, Timaru, rises in Mackenzie. The mayor is reported saying: "For me, that signals that there's a lot of people who are reasonably happy with how things have been going and don't want to see a large change in the council".

And Daisy Hudson also reports the view of candidates who see the voters as the problem, with one politician complaining about voters not participating: "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink" - see: Time for councillors to tackle low voter engagement.

And then there are those who vote for candidates that aren't even officially standing. Previously in this column, attention was drawn to Whangarei council candidate Angela Gill, who had to withdraw her candidacy after voting papers were finalised. It turns out that for some reason - maybe as protest votes, or ignorance - she did quite well in the election - see Alexandra Newlove's 1069 wasted votes for ineligible candidate.

Finally, for the ultimate explanations for non-voting in local government elections, see Martin van Beynen's Ten reasons why local body democracy is dying. Some of these factors are valid, others less so, but we'll all recognise some of the very real feelings identified in the list about the democratic deficit.

• Editor's note: This column had previously stated that press gallery journalist Stacey Kirk had decided not to vote. That was incorrect and has been ammeded to reflect this.

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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