A variety of radical reforms and technocratic tweaks are being proposed for fixing the problem of low voter turnout. But which of these changes are worth voting for?

How would you feel about being compelled to vote? Or getting paid to vote? Or voting on your phone? Lots of supposed solutions are being bandied around in response to this year's low voter turnout - which currently stands at 41.8 per cent. But would any of these proposals really make a difference? And does it really matter anyhow?

Most of these relate to local government. But of course, declining participation in electoral politics is occurring throughout the world at the moment and at all levels of government. Therefore, it's important to remember that although low voter turnout is particularly severe in New Zealand local government elections, it's a problem everywhere and is not easily fixed. And quite rightly the most common statement of fact is about the lack of any "silver bullet" to remedy the situation. Nonetheless it's worth looking at some of the voting options:

Voting fix number 1: Compulsory voting

The Labour Party has put forward this controversial fix, suggesting that New Zealand could emulate Australia's system of fining those who don't vote.

The reaction has been negative from both left and right. For instance, see No Right Turn's blog post: Just f*** off, Labour. He argues Labour needs to provide a strong reason for people to vote, rather than try to coerce: "this is Labour's perennial 'solution' to the 'problem' that its core constituency doesn't turn out for them. But refusing to vote is a choice, and a valid one. People vote when they have something to vote for. It speaks volumes that Labour would rather try and force them to the ballotbox on pain of a fine than give them hope that a Labour government or Labour local body politicians could make a meaningful difference to their lives."

On the right, Liam Hehir wrote earlier on the subject - see: Compulsory voting: should you be made to care? He argues philosophically against compulsion, but also points out that often those political parties who advocate "involuntary" voting are those who believe they will benefit from it more than their opponents.

In this regard it's worth remembering that last year the Labour Party courted controversy with its proposal to penalise low-income people who don't enroll to vote, officially submitting: "The possibility of making enrolment to vote a pre-condition to receipt of various forms of state support (eg Working For Families, tax credits) should be examined" - see Nicholas Jones's Labour penalties target non-voters. Previously Labour has also proposed introducing state funding of candidates in local government to pay for their election advertising.

Voting fix number 2: Payment for voting

While some propose punishments for non-voting - especially fines - an alternative approach that is more carrot than stick, would be to provide some sort of financial incentive for participation. I mention this possibility in an article by Simon Maude - see: Paying voters one solution to New Zealand's election apathy.

Maude's article also canvasses University of Auckland political scientist Jennifer Curtin on compulsory voting - which she supports. Other options discussed in the article include changes to the local government rates system, better civics education, and the possibility of "recall" provisions in which those elected could be sacked by the public.

For some previous arguments in favour of payments, see Carrie Stoddart-Smith's blog post, What about a voter credit?

Voting fix number 3: Online voting

This appears to be the most popular solution for declining turnout, and is advocated by a wide variety of people. For instance David Farrar argued last week that Postal voting is a dying medium. He disagrees strongly with the Government's decision earlier this year to abandon its proposed limited trial of online voting for the local elections.

Plenty of others agree that the time is now right for this technology - see, for example, Cherie Howie's Another poor local body election voter turnout - Is it time to bring in online voting?. In this, Local Government New Zealand's chief executive Malcolm Alexander is quoted: "We've got to ask ourselves, is postal voting fit for purpose? There's no silver bullet, but we are going to look at online voting quite hard ... it's the way of the future, particularly in engaging youth."

Today's Hawke's Bay Today editorial also gives a vote of confidence to online voting, but argues for the need for a dual system: "I am not saying that we must throw out the old system - keep that as an option, but simply make it possible for people to go online for a few minutes and fullfill their democratic obligations.


"I am certain it would be appealing to many people if they could do that. Look how online banking has revolutionalised our lives. For those who want to transfer money between accounts or pay bills at midnight, they are able to do so in the comfort of their homes. Those that still like to go out and physically do their transactions at the bank are still able to, but the point is about giving people options" - see: Surely online voting should be an option.

There could well be some benefits from the use of online technology. And previously when he was mayor of Auckland, Len Brown estimated that online voting would lead to a doubling of voter turnout.

But I've gone on record suggesting that the time isn't yet right for online voting, and that there are bigger problems than postal voting - see TVNZ's Is it time for us to vote online? Not everyone convinced 'e-voting' will work.

And for a very strong opposition to the proposal, see Lyn Prentice's blog post on The Standard: Online voting - the only choice for idiots.

But the must-read discussion of online voting is Julienne Molineaux's No silver bullet: Online voting and local elections. The AUT academic's main point against online voting is the issue of security: "New solutions create new problems. In the case of online voting, the most intractable problem relates to the security of the system. If the voting system is not secure, the whole process risks losing public confidence, creating a downwards spiral of even more disengagement and non-voting."

She points to problems with "the inability to guarantee both anonymity and verifiability" with online methods - basically meaning that we can't be sure that vote counting will be correct, and we can't be sure that individual voting choices will be kept anonymous.

Molineaux's highly-informative article is not simply concerned with the pros and cons of online voting systems, but with the wider issues of solving the problem of declining turnout. She says "Solving low turnout is more complex than just making the mechanics of voting easier." This authoritative piece also deals with the issues of inequalities of voting - i.e. which groups in society are disenfranchised.

Some useful points are also made by Mike Yardley in his column, New Zealand's system for electing councils is broken. For example, he points to overseas experience: "Just look at the fiasco that fast torpedoed Australia's "revolutionary" online census, in August. Estonia is the only country I know of that's gone big with online voting, but it's underpinned by strong security protocols whereby individuals use their National ID Card to log in - a compulsory form of identification anathema to Kiwis. Until our government is satisfied that e-voting can be delivered in a secure fashion, unmolested by miscreants, it should remain parked up."

Today the Otago Daily Times looks at Low voter turnout in its editorial, and it also sees online voting as inevitable, but warns against online voting being seen as the answer: "When postal voting was first introduced, it was supposed to raise voting rates by making the process easier. But any effect was temporary, and it is unlikely online voting would make a significant difference beyond the margins."

The editorial also questions whether a declining or low turnout is necessarily a problem: "If matters are moving along without too many problems, those most interested in the issues, the personalities and the process can cast their votes and help ensure worthy candidates come through. They are, in a sense, proxy voting for the wider majority. When matters become acute, when it is really important, a larger reservoir can come out in force. Thus, local politicians remain accountable for their performance, even with low turnouts. Despite the disappointment, turnouts are still large enough for local democracy to function reasonably. Although an ever-increasing lack of interest in local government is apparent, that need not signal a rejection of local politics. If big issues affect communities they can still be mobilised and exert pressure."

Voting fix number 4: Civics education and information

There is no doubt that there is a need for greater - or improved - information about both the role of local government, voting process and the candidate options in elections. This is fuelling greater demand for the introduction of some form of civics education in secondary schools. For example, Richard Handley, the former chief executive of Taranaki's polytech who ran for the New Plymouth mayoralty, has called for "democracy classes for high school students" - see Taryn Utiger's Mayoral candidate calls for classrooms to teach importance of democracy in light of low turnout.

Generally, we all need better information about the candidates according to Lincoln University lecturer Jean Drager, who is reported saying that "It is quite difficult for people to find out enough to encourage them to vote... At the moment they get voting forms with a little booklet with a little piece about each candidate. If you're not connected to your community or haven't accessed other information, it's quite bewildering" - see Michael Cropp's Clock ticking on lifting voter turnout.

Young people in particular are seen to have little knowledge of political institutions or the people involved. David Burroughs randomly tested teenagers and "All seven instantly recognised a photo of John Key but came up short when asked to name someone on the local council" - see: Teenagers know John Key, but do they know who's on the New Plymouth council?.

Voting fix number 5: Political parties in local elections

New Zealand has a tradition of only very low level political party involvement in local government. There has always been a suspicion about the interference of national-level bodies in community-level forms of politics, and hence there's been a strong culture of so-called "independent" candidates standing. But has this served local government and elections well?

Stacey Kirk suggests otherwise: "It's time for a complete overhaul of how local body elections are run, and online voting won't fix everything. It might be a small tweak, but lets start with candidates running as "independents". Often they're not. They have political ideologies like any aspiring politician - they just don't declare them. It's not right they can hide a wider political agenda, but running on formal party-political position may actually increase turnout. New Zealanders get the major parties, they understand what side they're coming from. With the added benefit of the vetting processes parties would put candidates through (albeit not foolproof), the quality may also be lifted" - see: Meet your new council - is it up to the job? Who knows.

I'm also an advocate of this option, and my views are expressed today in Simon Maude's story, Paying voters one solution to New Zealand's election apathy. I'm quoted as saying "The drawbacks of getting parties involved are outweighed by having them involved, political parties despite their problems still have roots in local communities."

My advocacy of this is further reported yesterday in Jonathan Carson's story, Why we didn't vote: How to fix voter turnout at local elections. It is reported: "He said involving political parties in the local election process might help to engage voters. Council candidates aligning with National, Labour, or the Greens, provided easy-to-understand 'labels' for voters."

Similarly, Andrew Dickens says: "we need to get better candidates instead of the amateur hour we have already. We need party systems and primaries so we have fewer candidates of better quality. Having 19 candidates for the Auckland mayoralty including some bona fide nutters was just a joke" - see: Online voting would not change a thing, it's still voter laziness.

Voting fix number 6: None of the above

Perhaps none of the above options will fix the problem. There are a variety of other possibilities to consider, and this debate needs to be wide-ranging. For example, do the electoral systems need reforming? At the moment there is no uniformity of electoral systems for local government voting. Some authorities use First-Past-the-Post, others use STV (including all district health boards). And many voters still struggle with the STV system for DHBs, which was shown strongly in the Nelson Marlborough region this year - see Samatha Gee's Community not engaged with Nelson Marlborough District Health Board vote. According to this report, "More than half of the voting papers returned for the Nelson Marlborough District Health Board member were not counted due to errors or left blank."

Perhaps term limits need to be imposed on elected officials? Civic reporter Nicholas Boyack includes that idea in his list of possible reforms - see: The way elections are run needs a big shake-up to get young people involved.

For a more conspiratorial take on the problem, see Martyn Bradbury's blog post, Who is to blame for low voter turn out and why online voting isn't the solution. He says: "So let's point out why the voter turn out is so low for the thousandth bloody time shall we? It's built that way. We don't want poor people voting, if they did, neoliberalism would never gain power again." Bradbury also has an interesting list of proposals for voting reform, including lowering the age of eligibility to 16 years.

But perhaps the biggest possible reform is put forward by Geoffrey Palmer who is pushing for a new constitution: "The time has come to provide local government with a greater measure of autonomy. Local government in New Zealand could be more vibrant, effective and responsive to its communities on local issues if it were provided with a robust constitutional place upon which to stand and a more coherent and principled set of legal requirements under which to function" - see:
For a boost in inspiration and participation, councils need greater independence.

Finally, for one of the more "entertaining" proposals for fixing voter turnout, see Andrew Rose's Survivor: Candidate Island, a radical cure for voter apathy?