Local elections 2013: 'Dire' voter turnout spurs inquiry suggestion

By Debbie Porteous

Political scientist Dr Bryce Edwards
Political scientist Dr Bryce Edwards

A commission of inquiry may be required to sort out the country's "dire" voter turnout for local body elections, a Dunedin political scientist says.

About 60 per cent of New Zealanders did not vote in the recent local body elections.

A "big discussion" was needed about the problem at a national level, probably most appropriately through an inquiry, University of Otago politics lecturer Dr Bryce Edwards said.

All options for improving voter and candidate engagement needed to be considered in discussions, including all voting systems, such as compulsory voting, online voting and polling booths, he said.

However, he believed reintroducing political parties into the contest would do the most to turn things around by giving voters a better idea of what candidates stood for.

"A big part of the problem is that so much of the public don't feel comfortable or confident in their choices because it is so hard to know what the actual ramifications are of voting for a lot of the candidates."

There seemed to be an assumption political parties were not good for local body politics, he said.

People might be wary of councillors taking their orders from Wellington and potentially view them as not being engaged locally, but the dangers of that were outweighed by the greater dangers of having "independents" accountable to no-one and "floating without anchor".

Everyone had an ideology and it would be more "up front and honest" if everyone aligned themselves politically, he said.

It would also mean there was a level of quality assurance given parties took on candidates who were not going to besmirch their reputation and who they believed could do the job adequately.

It did not have to be a national party, "just something greater than the individual".

Greater Dunedin was a "very low-level" version of that, but was problematic in many ways.

"There's a lot of murkiness about it in people's eyes."

He pointed to the Green Party's success at the elections, including Aaron Hawkins' election in Dunedin, which showed people were not totally turned off by political parties' candidates.

"I don't think anyone was really in doubt when they were voting for Aaron Hawkins what that meant. People chose not to vote for him for that reason, and people voted for him. It would be good if there were more candidates like that."

The more technical fixes, such as voting systems, should be part of the debate, but people should not think that taking things online, for example, would dramatically change voter turnout.

Postal voting was brought in as a way of arresting the decline in voting and that had worked for a while.

"We might well see that with electronic voting too, but you actually need some substance with what's on offer in the end regardless of its form of delivery."

- Otago Daily Times

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