Editorial: Fix has to be found for poor voter turnout

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Photo / Sarah Ivey
Photo / Sarah Ivey

There is a long history of low voter turnouts at local-body elections. If Auckland has rarely bucked that trait, there was hope the arrival of the Super City would prompt a healthier level of participation.

This sentiment was based on the wider council purview and a framework featuring, not least, expanded mayoral powers, features that made every election more significant and rigorous debate on issues of substance surely more likely. Additionally, voters would find their task much simplified by the absence of a regional council.

So much for theory. Another disturbingly low turnout has confirmed the need for change.

The first and most obvious port of call is postal voting. It was introduced to eliminate the hassle of going to a polling booth. It has failed. In part, this may reflect the fact that people are no longer accustomed to posting anything and that post boxes are an increasingly rare feature of the streetscape.

But whatever the cause, many Aucklanders this year put their voting forms to one side and never returned to them. Voting must be made more convenient.

The Local Government Minister has recognised as much, and there will be a trial of online voting at the next local-body elections. Some caution is perhaps understandable because of the potential for security issues. It is clear, however, that online voting must be introduced as soon as possible, especially to encourage the young to vote.

It would also help if polling booths were used, if only as a location for online voting. These give any election a certain cachet. Their presence suggests local democracy should be treated every bit as seriously as a general election.

The change should not stop there. There is no good reason to continue using the single transferable voting system to elect district health boards. Many people surely reached that section of their voting forms and decided it was simply too hard to rank candidates, of whom they had little knowledge, in order of preference. Worse, some may have listed them indiscriminately.

The voting system was introduced, largely at the behest of the Greens, in 2004 in the belief that it would help prevent wasted votes. It has been little short of a disaster, creating confusion, low participation and slow vote counts. In 2005, National's then leader, Don Brash, promised to scrap it, saying its use had "made a mockery of New Zealand democracy". He was right, yet somehow STV has endured.

A higher turnout would also be encouraged if there was less blurring of candidates' party lines and ideologies. Nothing useful would be served by National and Labour involving themselves directly. But when candidates tag themselves as "independent", rather than making their political allegiance clear, they introduce a level of uncertainty about their beliefs that can confuse voters and discourage voting.

Perhaps even these changes would not have made much difference in an election in which the mowing of berms somehow emerged as the main issue, and the contest for the mayoralty never generated a huge degree of interest. Certainly, it bore no comparison with, say, last election's mayoral battle between Len Brown and John Banks or the earlier challenge to Mr Banks by Dick Hubbard, both of which inspired many to vote. The dismal turnout, nonetheless, still offers a scornful riposte to the expectations raised by the Super City. Everything possible must be done to create a truer public mandate.

- NZ Herald

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