Local government elections in New Zealand are fast approaching, but participation in local democracy has been declining for several years. The problem is particularly bad in Auckland where turnout was under forty percent during the last elections in 2016. Lachlan Balfour spoke with Janine Hayward about low turnout in local body elections.
Janine Hayward is a Professor in Politics at Otago University. She is an expert in New Zealand politics and is the co-author of Historical Dictionary of New Zealand.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Lachlan Balfour: How low is turnout in local body elections?
Janine Hayward: It is low but it depends on how you measure it. Certainly under fifty percent, which is not good.
LB: And it is lower than central government elections?
JH: Yes, definitely. Again, depending on how you measure it, we expect our general elections to be around eighty percent these days, but with local body elections it is a good thirty percent lower at least. Auckland has got some of the worst turnout, I think their turnout last time was in the thirties, but in some of our smaller districts turnout is actually quite high in the sixties and early seventies. So it does vary widely but I think even that tells us a little bit about the kinds of things that encourage and discourage people from voting.
LB: Do we know why turnout in cities like Auckland is so low?
JH: It is part of a general trend, apart from anything else, that turnout is declining internationally, and it is particularly challenging at local government level. And I guess if you turn it around the other way, it is helpful to kind of think about the reasons that we know people will vote. So we know they will vote when they have been socialised into voting which is a part of the challenge that we are confronting, but we know that they will vote when they care about the issues, when they think there is a really tight contest, when they feel that their vote is going to make a difference, or when there is a really good profile for the election.
In terms of why people might not vote, across the board in local government elections people often keep a low profile, people don’t know the elections are going on, it is really difficult for local media to try and cover a campaign to the extent that is required to get people interested, the issues sometimes don’t ignite people’s interest, they don’t feel that their vote is going to make a difference. So I guess in some senses, at local government, the odds are stacked against them in terms of turnout because the conditions of their elections are challenging. Sometimes I think, actually, given that our turnout isn’t bad, we do have a determined group of voters in New Zealand that despite the fact that in some cases all of those conditions are lacking in our local government elections they will still turn out and vote. So if you want to look at it that way it is not so bad, but it is still not as good as it ought to be and there are some things that could be done about that.
LB: What are these things?
JH: One of the main issues which is capturing some attention is the question about the electoral system. We still use in the majority of our council elections First Past the Post, which is the worst choice you could make in terms of an effective electoral system for multi-member constituencies. So when you are electing a number of people at a time, first past the post is the worst system to choose because it does a very bad job in translating what people voted for into who gets elected. So what we see is that our councils don’t represent the diversity of our populations because they tend to be dominated by people who are elected by the largest bloc of voters who tend to vote for the same kinds of candidates. So that is really happening in Auckland, it happens in a lot of our larger councils where the vote is getting dominated by particular groups. I mean, Auckland’s mayor is being elected by just twenty percent of Aucklanders.
The options that we have in terms of a different electoral system is the single transferable vote that some councils are using and we know that means that for a mayoral election, for example, that the mayor has to get fifty percent support. So immediately you have a whole different issue about showing voters that their vote is actually going to count, that eighty percent of votes are not going to get wasted, and that there is a possibility if a diversity of people are standing that communities can elect a diversity of candidates to represent them. And that then has the effect of making councils more visible, of them engaging in policies in ways that will likely resonate more broadly with their community, and again of making people think that the issues the councils are dealing with may be relevant to them and of interest and that there is a point to voting.
LB: How would the system work?
JH: If you vote in DHB elections, you don’t get multiple votes; you just get one vote but you cast that vote by ranking candidates according to your preference for them. So you put your most favoured first, the person you like next best second and so on until you don’t want to rank anyone else basically. So you just get to rank as many as you want depending on how many you would like elected to office. The principle of STV works apart from the fact that it just gives you a single vote which immediately distributes votes more widely so a greater proportion of the voting preferences are reflected in who gets elected. It also means that it safeguards against wasted votes. Say if I vote for somebody that I really like but they are spectacularly unpopular and they are excluded first from the race, my vote will then go to my second preference and it will keep moving until it helps to elect somebody.
LB: You said some councils are starting to implement this, why do you think we are not seeing it in places like Auckland?
JH: We are not seeing it because if we know anything about elected representatives is that they are spectacularly self-interested and they are not going to change an electoral system that helps them get elected. The system that we can use for changing electoral systems is either [that] the council can just decide to do it by regulation in its representation review once every five years, or the community can raise a poll and have a referendum to try and change it. So we have had all of those things happen: Wellington keeps polling their residents about STV and they have kept it, Dunedin had a public poll once and the council kept it since then, same with Porirua.
But in once instance – I think it was Thames-Coromandel – the community changed STV, and the first opportunity the council got it changed it back because it can. So we have got this ridiculous system not only that councils are deciding for themselves whether or not they want to change electoral systems and it is no surprise that they don’t, but also that if communities managed to raise the numbers they need to have a change there is no guarantee that they can keep it because councils can come over the top of it at the next opportunity and change the electoral system back. So we need some certainty for a start and we need to take this decision out of the hands of councils. It really requires government to make a mandatory change to an electoral system that is actually going to make sure that the way that people vote is nicely translated into who actually gets elected.
LB: Do you think there is an issue with finding out information at local body elections? I mean you have got to vote for DHB, council, local, mayor and it is just so hard. Is that a real deterrent?
JH: It is an obstacle absolutely, and that is what I was saying before that in general elections we have the advantage of national media covering the issues and giving people some of the information they need to remind them an election is on. Also, in that case, it is just our electorate vote and our party vote, whereas, as you say, on our ballot papers for a local election there are often a lot of candidates standing and we are voting using FPP or even ranking candidates so you have got to think about some quite complicated things in terms of how many you like, who you like. We do know there are some people who will determinedly vote no matter what, there are others who appear to have disengaged from voting and it is hard to get them there. There is also a big bunch in the middle who mean to do it but something puts them off and it is often that it is too hard. Often people will open the booklet and think ‘Oh, that is so much reading’ or you don’t open the booklet and forget about it. So with the postal vote again there is no moment of ceremony like we have with an election day that kind of focuses our attention. We do know from research that there are a lot of well-intentioned voters who are just missing that opportunity either because they have out it off or because something has not compelled them to engage or because they tried but it just seemed too hard.
LB: What are the implications on our local government democracy if there is low turnout?
JH: Well it is not a good sign. It is one of our many barometers as to how healthy our democracy is. So when voter turnout is declining we know that there is something that is not right. And in terms of specifically local government elections, I guess one of the major issues for us is that we are entering this phase where local and central government are in something of a negotiation over who is going to be doing what in terms of our response to climate change in particular. Local authorities that are getting elected by a bare minimum of people turning up to elections are not going to well represent the really robust diversity of views that we need around council tables and the engagement that our councils are going to need with our communities and their constituencies for us to be well-informed and make these kinds of decisions well. So I guess now more than ever we really do need robust local government that is able to do whatever the job is central government allows it to do in terms of responses, adaptation and mitigation around climate change, and also just advocate where local government feels it needs a greater role. That absolutely requires a really solid mandate from voters.
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