Voting for local government should be simple.
If you think that council has generally done a good job, support most incumbent candidates. Make sure to rank incumbents who generally supported the outcomes you prefer ahead of new challengers. Rank promising new challengers ahead of the few incumbents who supported things you oppose.
If you think that council has done a generally poor job, support incumbents who tried to make things better. Rank promising new challengers above the rest of them.
If only it were that simple.
It is effectively impossible to tell how local and regional councillors voted on most things. It doesn't need to be.
The lack of information about councillor voting records is particularly jarring when government, and councils, compel a lot of information disclosure in other areas. Government generally believes that consumers and investors make poor choices unless companies are required to disclose a lot of information.
Energy star ratings. Prospectus requirements. Climate-related risk disclosures for large companies. Ingredient labelling and calorie counts. Restaurant food grades. Lengthy tedious disclosures from your insurance advisor. Fuel efficiency labelling on cars, even though plenty of websites and reviews already detail that information.
The case for these kinds of rules was always debatable. People aren't as dumb as government often thinks, and markets provide a lot of ways of getting information to people who want it.
When stakes are high and more information can help, people will invest more time and effort figuring out what they need to know. Buying a house can and should take a lot of due diligence. But if you're choosing between two two-hour movies on Netflix, spending five hours reading dozens of reviews of both would probably be wrong.
Regardless of the merits of information disclosure regimes, government acts as though they are critically important. But if your basic model of the world is that everything is likely to fall apart unless a benevolent government ensures everyone has all the information they might possibly need to make decisions, then why is it effectively impossible to tell how incumbent councillors have voted?
If you want to know how incumbent councillors voted on issues you care about, you have a few options – none of them good.
If you are lucky, an activist group will have put together a list of which candidates supported and opposed relevant initiatives. In Wellington, Island Bay Healthy Streets has listed how councillors voted on a few issues they care about. The information is useful regardless of whether you share their views.
But if you also care about issues that haven't been tallied, it will be harder. Councils keep no systematic record. Or, at least, none of the larger councils seem to.
If you want to know how your mayor and councillors voted, you will likely need to dig through council minutes. If you cannot remember exactly when council voted on the issues you care about, you'll need to find those dates first.
All of it then requires digging, issue-by-issue. Newspaper reports will likely tell you when the vote happened, but they are less likely to tell you who voted each way. Council minutes, if you can find the right meeting's minutes, will record whether a motion was carried. But they sometimes only note dissenting votes if a councillor asked that their dissent be recorded.
And if the main problem you care about comes down to a decade's worth of decisions making core water infrastructure a low priority relative to white-elephant projects and festivals, you will have to dig through a lot of council minutes to see whether any long-standing incumbents should be spared your wrath.
Who would put in that kind of effort for a local government ballot?
For a high-stakes decision, people might invest that kind of time and effort. If you were buying a house in Christchurch that was built before 2011, spending a lot of time digging back through records from 2010 and 2011 could make a lot of sense.
But voters are separated from election outcomes by a veil of insignificance. Turnout at local elections is low, but not low enough that any one of us is particularly likely to change the election outcome. You're a lot more likely to change the outcome of a local election than a national election, but it's the difference between buying a raffle ticket at the school fair and buying a lotto ticket.
The odds aren't that great either way.
Getting the right outcome in local elections matters. Poor decisions at council level can have national consequence. We would not have a national housing shortage, and all of the social ills that flow from it, if local councils did not make it so hard to build houses. Some heroic councillors vote to enable housing, despite the incentives councils face. They deserve to be rewarded.
But because no voter is particularly likely to change the outcome, few would spend the time and effort that would be required to gather the information needed to cast an informed ballot.
While it would be relatively simple for councils to set up and maintain websites tallying each vote, rather than burying them in impenetrable minutes, it has not happened.
Compulsory information disclosure is most warranted when the public interest in a better-informed decision is high but the private incentive to gather information is low.
Central government believes we need fuel economy stickers on car windows – despite the ease of finding the same information online. The case for requiring councils to provide basic information on councillors' votes is stronger than the case for fuel economy stickers on car windows, and it hasn't happened.
We can't be certain that making it easier for local voters to reward and punish incumbents based on their voting records would substantially improve turnout or improve local government outcomes.
But surely it's worth trying. Democracy depends on voters being able to "throw the bums out" when necessary, but that requires being able to tell who they are.
It should be a lot simpler.
• Dr Eric Crampton is chief economist with the New Zealand Initiative.