Forget about the so-called "missing million" of parliamentary elections - in 2016 we need to be talking about the "mission millions". There are about two million eligible voters who won't bother to participate in the local authority elections the postal ballots have just been mailed out for. At the last local elections, voter turnout dropped to only 41 per cent, and there's no reasons to suggest it will improve in 2016. There's clearly some sort of democratic deficit in operation when so many people are turning their backs on democracy. So, should we vote? Does it matter if we don't? What are the reasons for the declining turnout?
Should you vote?
Does voting matter? And, in fact, does local government matter? There's always a resounding "yes!" being called out to the public just before elections. The latest such call is from economist Shamubeel Eaqub, who asserts that it's important to Make your local government vote count. He draws parallels with the recent Brexit vote, suggesting that if only young people had voted in greater numbers, the whole controversial referendum wouldn't have passed.
Eaqub's main point is that by voting you can make a big difference to who's in power, and those alienated from the system would be better looked after by politicians. But he does see some failings of the system, which he'd like to see fixed.
Newshub's Dianna Vezich and Shannon Redstall also make the case for participating: "It's really important to vote because those that run the councils impact on a lot of areas in our lives - from driving your car to going to the library to turning the tap on for water" - see: Pick your mayoral candidate... out of a hat?. They also point out that it's a waste of money if you don't participate, with councils spending about $5.80 per person on the elections.
Similarly, RNZ's Mava Moayyed says "Local elections have huge impact on everything from festivals, concerts and street parties; to drinking water, sewerage, and roading" - see: What can local body politicians do to convince us to vote?. And there are often very different views on how to deliver such services, and who benefits from them according to blogger Christine Rose - see: Local government: seldom sexy but always essential.
It's university students who are called on to vote by University of Otago politics student Jarred Griffiths - see his student newspaper article, Why local politics actually matter.
Alienated youth and other demographics
Young people are normally seen as the biggest problem - or victim - of declining voter turnout. This is well expressed in Eva Corlett's RNZ article, Young voters feel locked out of local body politics. Here's the key part: "This year, only two thirds of people under 30 are enrolled to vote, but all age groups over 35 have nearly 100 percent enrolment. A recent Auckland University-led mayoral debate drew a crowd of just 40 students, a reflection of the low turnout of younger voters in local elections. At the debate, some came to listen, some just to eat lunch but all of the students RNZ spoke to said local body elections were inaccessible. They said it wasn't apathy which was the problem, it was poor political process. Many students expressed their frustration at the lack of centralised information about the candidates and their policies."
According to Janine Rankin this is a self-reinforcing problem: "If young people do not vote, then what is the point of candidates' trying to win their favour?... And that sets up what some of the experts call "a cycle of neglect". Councillors tend to work for their constituency, not the others. Even if they try to represent other interests, they often don't quite 'get it'." - see: The young, the very young, the footsore and the lost.
If young voters could be brought into the process, TVNZ reports the impact could be significant - see: Young people seen as 'sleeping giants' for impact they can have on local elections.
For further details on the age issue, see Sally Lindsay's NBR article, How many voters will front up? Not many, based on stats and failed campaigns (paywalled). She reports that in the last elections, "Surveys found the highest voter turnout was in the 70-plus age group, at 89%, and the lowest was in the 18-29 age group, at 34%." She says this isn't about to improve: "It's predicted the number of voters in local council elections will drop even further as more young people take less of an interest and forsake the ballot box."
See also Auckland University politics student Weiyi Zhang's research on the demographics of non-participation in local elections: Age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and declining voter turnout in Auckland's local elections. This shows that those groups who are significantly less inclined to vote include youth, the poor, and Asians.
The director of The Asian Network Inc is also quoted about Asian non-voting in Kurt Bayer's article, Candidates could change voter apathy. He suggests that it's a more recent problem for Asians than in the past: "People were quite proactive, they were fresh migrants but these days I can see that it is diminishing." He puts the problem down to a lack of Asian candidates: "If the candidates can't connect to the minds and needs of the community, then how can people be inspired to vote?"
The big problems with local government elections
Perhaps the problem with non-voting isn't so much with the voters, lack of information, or various demographic issues, but more with the failure of local government institutions and politicians to provide anything worth voting for. Certainly there are reports of many election campaigns lacking dynamism, real substantive issues being debated, or an even a real choice of options. In this case, maybe it makes sense not to vote.
Today's column by Dave Armstrong reports on the Wellington mayoral campaign and one rather passionless mayoral meeting in particular - see: Mayoral race unpredictable but little between candidates.
He suggests the problem is the lack of political differences between the candidates, and the lack of big issues being debated: "though there are eight candidates from which to choose, it's difficult finding that much difference between many of them. At the Prefab meeting, genial fringe 'Locality Party' candidate Johnny Overton, in between advocating revolution, commented that those sharing the stage with him were 'all the same; all neo-liberals'. He's sort of right."
Simon Wilson believes that Auckland is suffering from the same lack of choice and debate - he has a feature in the latest Metro magazine that suggests frontrunners Phil Goff and Victoria Crone have relatively similar programmes, and that these aren't that different to the incumbent - see: The man in the middle.
For Wilson, this politically centrist and bland race is a major problem, because "Auckland has a crisis. Actually, it has several crises. The litany is well known: housing, transport, health and education issues in the poorer communities" etc. Furthermore, public confidence in the city council has plummeted: "In a Citizen Insights Monitor survey released by Auckland Council in June, just 15 per cent of us said we were satisfied with the council's performance. Only 17 per cent of us said we trust it. This is disgraceful. Councils elsewhere commonly enjoy more than 50 per cent support; in a 2015 survey in Brisbane, satisfaction with the delivery of services was at 70 per cent. These results should have led to a major reckoning inside the council, with public acknowledgment they were getting things badly wrong and a publicly announced commitment to fix the problem. Incredibly, there's been no sign of that at all."
Wilson concludes that "A big vision is required, all over again, and bold execution has to follow." But he seems unconvinced that Phil Goff or any other candidate are up the task.
Interestingly, one mayoral candidate, Mark Thomas, has some similar complaints, saying "this hasn't been a contest about ideas, it's been a contest about profile" - see the Herald's Auckland mayoral candidate Mark Thomas asked to withdraw from race.
Political scientist Barry Gustafson has also commented on the failure of the Auckland mayoral candidates to convince the public. He is reported as believing that "not one candidate's election manifesto excites" and "neither have any delivered sober yet brilliant solutions to Auckland's problems that inspire" - see Simon Maude's Boring Auckland mayoral candidates can't trump 'The Donald'. Furthermore, the candidates aren't talking about the issues that matter: "It's a lack of interest, people register things they're really interested in, they're interested in some issues, transport, tax and housing, they're really annoyed and worried about a lot things but it doesn't necessarily translate into people because they're not sure where [the candidates] stand on these issues."
This makes for a boring campaign, which the Herald's Bernard Orsman has reported as being a "battle of accountants" without any big ideas - see: Mayoral hopefuls share their vision for future of Auckland.
In the end, it looks likely that voter turnout at the election will once again be incredibly low - it could even drop below 40 percent. Surely it's this result that sends the strongest message that democracy isn't working.
Finally, for satire about the difference your vote might make, here's Ben Uffindell's account of the heated debate and struggle on the Albert-Eden Community Board - see: Stakes high in local board election as outcome could affect placement of tree relative to curb.