Auckland has a few crises at the moment: housing, transport, climate. Following the recent local government elections, is it time to add local democracy to the list?
Auckland Council spent $1.6 million on the "Love Auckland" campaign in the last two elections, trying to get Aucklanders to vote. In 2016, the efforts had 93 per cent saying they were aware the elections had been on. But, only 38.5 per cent voted. This year it is down to 34.7 per cent.
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Although those involved congratulate themselves on the level of "awareness" achieved, they miss the point that we may love Auckland but we do not love the council – and so do not see much point voting for it.
This is not just an Auckland problem, of course. Although the country's largest city received its lowest voter turnout ever, the country's 11 cities collectively dropped to a new low of 37.8 per cent.
It is also not just a council problem. The parliamentary inquiry into the 2013 local elections (then the lowest turnout election ever) investigated and made a series of thoughtful recommendations.
These included: creating a national local voting campaign rather than the current 80 separate local ones; shortening the voting period; moving the date to avoid school holidays; making ballot boxes more widely available; trialling online voting; introducing civics teaching into the classroom; and improving the voting form.
None of these recommendations were accepted by the then government. A key reason was that the "local government sector holds the expertise in running local elections". But how is that "local government expertise" working out? The worst turnout ever, six years after the worse turnout ever.
The 2016 local elections inquiry has now been rolled in with its 2017 General Elections' equivalent and there is hope of alignment with its recommendations. For example, having the Electoral Commission take over the promotion of local elections to greatly boost awareness, and reduce the polling time perhaps even to the same day as happens with general elections. These are both relatively easy to achieve because we already do them. Also these two changes would address the two key reasons Local Government NZ research said why people don't vote: they do not have enough information about the candidates or their policies, and they lack interest.
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In terms of other possible turnout fixes, LGNZ also found local government areas internationally with a greater range of responsibility and functions received greater turnout ,with cities in Denmark and Estonia getting over 60 per cent. But, despite successive Productivity Commission reports recommending this, nothing like this is on the government agenda.
Online voting should be trialled but the evidence is it is no silver bullet. AUT's Policy Observatory reported than when Ontario introduced it, turnout rose by only 3.5 per cent and more than half the voters did not vote.
National political parties running candidates directly in local elections or endorsing them is not a panacea either. In England, where the Conservatives, Labour and others all compete, turnout is lower than in New Zealand. In the Auckland areas where Labour local candidates dominate, turnout is lowest.
Auckland and other councils can wait for governments to act, but there is no sign it is a priority. Local government or election reform do not feature in either of the governing agreements the Labour Party has with the Green Party and NZ First, and Labour had no specific local government or elections policies in 2017.
The $1.6m Auckland Council spent on this year's election amounts to just $1.50 for each of the eligible voters in Auckland. It is easy to see why we got so little return from such a paltry investment. Unpopular as raising council spending is, this will be essential if governments continue to fail to act.
But the council should stop running the campaign itself. It is constrained by its "good news" communications approach and does not have modern, marketing capabilities. We know this because it ignored its own thoughtful 2018 study on Increasing Voter Turnout Using Behavioural Insights. This found person-to-person campaigning, direct mail and social pressure or comparison advertising had the most impact – none of which were present effectively in the "love" campaign.
In an American neighbourhood, citizens were sent information about who had voted or not in the last election in a social pressure initiative. They were then told updated information would be sent after the upcoming election. Plenty of people were angered by the perceived invasion of privacy, but turnout rose more than 8 per cent.
We have this information and could have done this with other innovative crisis-averting initiatives. Perhaps it will cost $1-2 more per Auckland eligible voter. Shall I start passing the can around?
• Mark Thomas leads an international smart cities business and was a candidate in the recent Auckland Council elections