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Dr Muriel Newman

A Spotlight on Democracy

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votingThe votes are in and up and down the country local body candidates will be celebrating or commiserating. All should be proud of putting themselves forward for office – for believing they could represent their communities well and make a difference – because standing for election is not an easy thing to do.

For those candidates who have been successfully elected, congratulations – the hard work is about to begin! And for those who didn’t make it but plan to run again, your campaign should start now, so your community can get to know who you are and what you stand for.

In the end, only 39.5 percent of New Zealand’s eligible voters cast a vote in these local body elections, down from 41.4 percent in 2013. This compares to 77.9 percent who voted in the last General Election. As a result, the soul searching will again begin as to what can be done to increase voter participation.

According to Local Government New Zealand, the individual council votes in Saturday’s election ranged from a high turnout of 63.3 percent in the McKenzie district, to a low of 23.3 percent in Matamata-Piako. The highest city council vote was Nelson with 48 percent, the highest provincial council vote was Wanganui with 56 percent, and of the rural councils, both the McKenzie District Council and the Central Otago District Council scored over 60 percent.

The trend for fewer people to vote is not confined to New Zealand. It afflicts democracies around the world – even the high profile US Presidential election. Voter turnout in their elections has fluctuated over the years from a high of 65.4 percent in 1908, to a low of 48.9 percent in 1924. As can be expected, voting varies widely in the US states, from 74.5 percent in Minnesota, which had the highest average voter turnout for the last four presidential elections, to the lowest at 50 percent in Hawaii.

When there was a strong contest, such as in 2008, when President Obama was first elected, the turnout was higher at 58.2 percent, but fell to 54.8 percent in 2012. While the current Donald Trump versus Hilary Clinton campaign is certainly high profile and extremely controversial, the unpopularity of both candidates is said to be a factor that might keep voters at home! Whether that will be the case will be revealed on November 8.

And as far as local authority elections in the US are concerned, like New Zealand, turnout is much lower. In 2001, an average of only 26.6 percent of those eligible US electors voted, dropping to 18.3 percent in 2009, but rising to 25.8 percent in 2013.

Of all the proposals to boost voter turnout in US local elections the most compelling research indicates that aligning local body elections with state or federal elections has, by far, the greatest effect. If local elections are shifted to presidential years, voter turnout is expected to increase by more than 18 percent, compared to a 9 point rise if they are aligned with midterm elections.

Aligning elections also saves money – the Maryland General Assembly estimates that delaying Baltimore’s next local election by a year in order to line it up with the 2016 presidential election will save the city an estimated $3.7 million.

In the UK last year, voter turnout for local elections increased by a massive 78 percent when many English council elections were aligned with the General Election. In those councils, turnout was 64 percent, compared with 36 percent in 2014.

For those councils that didn’t align with the General Election and held their election this year, average voter turnout was a dismal 33 percent.

The US research and British experience is compelling – it shows that if our Government is genuine about wanting to increase local authority voter turnout (and save money at the same time) then aligning local body elections with the General Election is the solution.

By convention, following local authority elections, a Parliamentary Inquiry will be undertaken by the Justice and Electoral Select Committee. Judging by media commentary, declining voter turnout is likely to be at the top of their list of concerns. No doubt supporters of electronic voting and advocates of lowering the voting age to 16 will promote these initiatives as ways for New Zealand to raise overall voter participation rates. But they should be aware that the latest 2014 European Parliamentary election showed they are not the panacea they are often claimed to be.

In Estonia, a country that moved to electronic voting more than a decade ago, voter turnout dropped from 43.9 percent in 2009, to 36.5 percent in 2014. And in Austria, which lowered the voting age to 16 in 2007, voter participation declined from 45.97 percent in 2009, to 45.39 percent in 2014.

Since the best way to increase voter turnout is clearly to schedule local body election to coincide with General Elections, it will be interesting to see whether this will become a recommendation of the Select Committee.

The reality is that local politics is of so little interest to most people that they will not go out of their way to vote – even though they already have voting papers and information about the candidates in their possession. They will however vote for local candidates if they happen to be in a polling booth voting in a General Election.

So why is it that people don’t vote in local body elections?

Local Government New Zealand has listed the main reasons that people give for not voting – 31 percent say they don’t know enough about the candidates, 24 percent say they ‘forgot or left it too late’, 14 percent said they were ‘not interested’, and 14 percent said they were ‘too busy’.

There are, of course, many reasons for indifference. Local government is considered by most to be of a lesser consequence than central government, and in some areas, its profile is so low, that residents are simply unaware of the important work it does.

In addition, since people who are renting don’t feel the impact of local government as acutely as property owners, then, as home ownership rates decline, an on-going fall in voter turnout is to be expected.

Voter disillusionment is also an issue of increasing concern in democracies around the world. But it is important to realise that it is not necessarily permanent. When the issues at stake are pressing enough, disillusioned voters can confound the establishment by turning out in force to vote – as they did in the UK when 72.2 percent of electors voted in the Brexit referendum – 51.9 percent voting to leave the European Union and 48.1 percent to remain.

Some commentators have recently been saying that the answer to our falling voter turnout is to follow the lead of Australia and make voting compulsory. While registering to vote in New Zealand is compulsory, voting is not.

But in spite of compulsory voting in Australia, the turnout in this year’s federal election was only 91 percent, the lowest since mandatory voting was introduced in 1925. More than 1.4 million Australians failed to vote for the House of Representatives, and 1.2 million for the Senate – the worst voting record since 1922, when only 59 per cent of eligible electors voted.

After each election, the Australian Electoral Commission asks those who didn’t vote to provide a sufficient reason or pay a A$20 fine – or the matter may be referred to a court and a fine of up to A$180 imposed.

Even with compulsory voting, the turnout for local elections in Australia tends to be lower at 80 to 90 percent, although on those occasions when federal elections were held around the same time as local elections, voter turnout increased – consistent with the US and UK findings.

The many opponents of compulsory voting in Australia, say it stifles political freedom and undermines the basic principles of democracy. They explain that forcing people to vote does not translate into an engaged electorate, and many argue that making voting voluntary would encourage Australians to be more involved in the democratic process. They reason that since elected politicians would be beholden to voters, they would need to work harder to give them a good reason to vote. In essence, they believe people should vote because they are inspired to do so, not because they are being forced into it.

A fundamental question that also needs to be answered is does it really matter if people don’t vote? Isn’t that their democratic right?

In a free democracy, just as important as having the right to vote – or not vote – as the case may be, is having the right to speak out. But it seems that these days, not all New Zealanders are accorded that opportunity – especially when what they have to say is not politically correct and is contrary to establishment thinking.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, free-lance journalist and former newspaper editor, Karl du Fresne, outlines what happened when a newly formed group that is campaigning for equal rights, used their democratic right to free speech, to launch their concerns at a national level late last month:

“It’s hard to recall a more concerted gang-up against a public figure than the one that followed the launch of former National Party leader Don Brash’s Hobson’s Pledge movement, which wants an end to race-based preference.  The mild-mannered Brash is no stranger to public kickings, but even he must have been taken aback by the sheer venom of the backlash.”

Karl explains, “Two common threads ran through the overwhelmingly disparaging response to Hobson’s Pledge. The first was that Brash’s critics seemed determined to muddy the water with extraneous issues – anything to deflect attention from his core message. None of his critics made a serious attempt to engage with the substance of his arguments.

“The other common line running through the anti-Brash invective was that he should shut up and pull his head in because no one’s listening anymore – at least according to the critics. But New Zealanders were listening in 2004 when Brash’s ‘one law for all’ speech to the Orewa Rotary Club triggered such a dramatic resurgence in National’s popularity that Helen Clark’s Labour government came within a whisker of being toppled.

“In any case, Brash isn’t expounding some fringe extreme-Right idea, as his detractors would have us believe. All he’s doing is affirming the importance of equality before the law. This isn’t something that changes according to whatever happens to be ideologically in fashion. It’s a fundamental principle of liberal democracy.”

Our democratic right to equality before the law has long been championed by the New Zealand Centre for Political Research. In 2012 we launched a Declaration of Equality – now signed by over 50,000 people, see HERE – which states, “We, New Zealanders of all backgrounds, having founded and developed our society in equality, fairness, and  comradeship, oppose any laws which establish or promote racial distinction or division. There shall be one law for all”.

The Declaration affirms our right to live in a colour blind society, by removing all references to the Treaty of Waitangi from constitutional documents and legislation, by abolishing race-based Parliamentary seats and Local Government seats, and by winding up the Waitangi Tribunal, which has fulfilled its original purpose.

The reality is that the right to say what we believe and to vote or not vote as we see fit are fundamental to our New Zealand way of life. And while we might sometimes be critical of what other people say or do, we should nevertheless be thankful that we live in a society that values political freedom and democratic rights. As Winston Churchill wisely said in Parliament in 1947, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government – except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”


Do you believe having local and central government elections on the same day is an idea worth pursuing?


*Poll comments are posted below.


*All NZCPR poll results can be seen in the Archive.


Click to view x 120


Karl writes well on Don Brash, however the Maori culture is overdone in this country with it constantly being forced down our throats. I’m with the Danish politician that the haka is aggressive and revolting. As for plastic grass skirts, no way represents me (first generation NZer) or my family-it is time for a modern idea for Kiwis in NZ. I quite like the local body elections on different years to the general but am prepared to try another idea. Monica
I like the idea of compulsory voting even more. Those IDIOTS who say it takes away personal freedom have always the option to leave their voting paper blank (or defaced, if they are irate enough), but it would lift voter numbers quickest (and be a small source of revenue too…) Lesley
No– because this would not change the fact that too many NZ citizens today are totally apathetic towards everything political. The complete lack of informative and constructively critical news media does not help to change that problem .Look at our situation where a TOW gravy train industry and racist indoctrination everywhere can wreak havoc on our nation’s welfare without being openly questioned and debated.If stuff like that can happen unchecked how can we expect a more critical and involved attitude from the general public towards this issue raised and reported on in this weeks article. Michael
I’m glad turnout is low. That means that my vote is more significant! Anon
Yes. I think it is worth a try. However just the large number of names to work through for local elections is time consuming and will put some people off. Voters will need to do their homework before they enter the voting booth. However it will save money to combine both elections on the same day and it is worth a try. Ernest
Anything is worth a try; would be even better if councils stuck to their roles of supplying vital infrastructure, libraries and swimming pools! Helen
There are too many lazy, brain dead, can’t be bothered, to encourage compulsory, or combined voting. If people can’t think an issue through, they are better for all of us if they don’t vote. And we should be listening to Karl de Fresne and Don Brash and get rid of Maori favouritism and that bloody gravy train Treaty – totally irrevelant in today’s modern society. Sick of gimme gimme bludgers. Carolyn
I can’t see any change will result in an improvement of voting numbers. Ross
It would appear to be a good idea, but I feel that the number of candidates would overwhelm most people, who then wouldn’t vote, because they ‘didn’t know who to vote for’. I think it would be overwhelming, and as more and more people wake up, more and more people want to know who they’re voting for. Michelle
Perhaps, but I believe in compulsory voting. If voters don’t like any of the candidates they can tick them all, thus registering a protest vote. Colin
Worth a try. John
But would change IF local voting by mail was also matched by central government voting by mail (poll booth voting abandoned). We certainly intensely dislike pollbooth attendance. Peter
The pathetic turn out for local body elections reflects the apathy that is society to-day. Reflecting the welfare state attitude, where personal responsibility has become a thing of the past. Just look at the Brash bashing that is going on at present. How dare he threaten the GRAVY TRAIN that has kept a lazy mixed race minority elite, in luxury for many years now, & looks like it will continue to do so for many years to come. My guess is, the majority of voters at the general election vote for the label because they always have, regardless of the road that their favourite party is taking them. Perhaps we have had things too easy for to long, so nobody cares much any more.. A.G.R.
A very sound idea. John
Unfortunately for some, electing a democratic government or local body council takes time. I read the local body booklet pertaining to the people standing, but the general election is different. I vote according to the party, as well as listening to the candidates. Democracy is not perfect, but it is the best that is going. Let us preserve it. It seems pointless voting for the first few because they appear alphabetically in the paper, them moaning because they do not do what we want. Kevan
It might mean that local body governance does not end up being dictated by the loony left. Kerry
One at the time is more than enough trouble. It takes a lot of study and time for each individual one. Theodorus
It should be compulsory that each council produce a note to all rate payers giving every person standing’s profile, experience and very important any affiliation or grouping. I personally would not vote for a union affiliated or trained person ,or, a left leaning academic. Likewise any public servant. They have no idea how to handle money or to only spend on items that will advance the economy of their elected district for the benefit of all within that district town or city. Thanks. Wayne
As a rural area of the Super City we are overwhelmed with National party representation including one of our local papers. There was not “meet the candidates” held in this area and total waffle printed about what the candidates were standing for. None declared their Party affiliations. I would welcome the change to local and central elections that would in my opinion make people more interested in the issues on the table that concern them. This is not an anti National comment but rather a desire to open the media reporting and people’s minds to the choices they have available. Di
Too confusing for many people especially first time voters and the elderly. Jan
It may encourage more people to vote. I think it would be great to give the Australian idea a go compulsory voting to shut the non voters that have an opinion up. Andrew
People complain of too many choices as it is. Think many would just give up at the number of decisions to be made. Jenny
Kill two birds with one stone AND save money to boot .. why wouldn’t you? Maddi
Postal voting is open to all manner of abuse: multiple papers going to one address; voting papers are being stolen and filled in by political activist to suit their own agenda. The polling booth offers a much more democratic way of voting. Jo
However there remains the concern that its seems that no politicians have been able or willing to balance the books, rather its a case of who can offer the greatest handouts. John
It would be a distraction, lead to lower voting in the main political sector. People would feel “its all too hard and complicated” and not vote at all. Hugh
You’ll never know the outcome until we give it a try. What’s the risk – with repetitive low voter turn out it can’t get much worse and just may get people motivated. Chris
Anything we can do to create more interest and save time and money is worth a trial. Johan
If people don’t care enough to vote then why force them into something they are not interested in. Tim
Well worth a try. Richard
Focus on one thing at a time. Sheila
Yes, by all means have the elections on the same day – but don’t expect the local component to be completed. I’m in the Auckland region and voted against Goff but was unable to elect any other positions for the simple reason that I know nothing about them – apart from their useless self-justification. They are all “passionate” about some populist idea which few could take exception to. But that’s it – you can not derive any idea of their suitability to put forward rational ideas or to vote rationally. Before giving anybody my vote I need to know what makes them tick – what their philosophy is – assumING they have one?!?) Ron aka Aunty Podes
Yes and electors should have to visit a polling booth in person to vote and be checked off the roll Peter
Maybe the “economies of scale” so frequently promoted by National would work in this situation, yeah right. John
Hard enough to get voters to participate once, let alone twice… Andy
Seems to be a option that definitely has merit. Sue
If nothing else it would save the cost of a postal vote. Also it wouldn’t help NZ Post financially. Ron
Anything to increase voter engagement in democracy. Mark
And compulsory voting, with a $100 fine! Bill
Great idea. All Democracies have the same problem and that is a lack of responsibility and accountability for politics by voters. Voting should also be compulsory along with the subject of politics and political economics being taught in schools. Frederick
The turnout for local elections is woeful, for general elections modestly better; the questions are whether combining into one election would drag in more voters or less, and would political parties involve themselves in local elections to a greater extent than at present by endorsing or standing candidates under a party banner. I believe that it is too confusing to ask voters more than one question (which Councillor, which Party) as it leads to a lack of focus, witness the electoral system ballot that gave us MMP, which was essentially an anti government vote by a small majority of voters, rather than a well thought through analysis of the various options, leading to a a measured conclusion. Andrew
Why not, might cut down on expenses. Ian
Having been involved in Advance Voting for some years I believe that given the availability of information at the venues and time to consider it would be well worth a trial. There would be benefits in scale also. Cliff
The huge information overload that it would create would confuse & deter many from voting even more than now. Otherwise it would make sense. Nick
In local body elections there are already so many positions to vote for and people to choose from, with very limited information about the candidates and their views. Difficult task that doesn’t need to have yet another decision added to it. However, closing local body polls at 5pm rather than midday, and providing links to each candidate’s speeches and history of council decisions if any, would help. Hans
Too confusing with the amount of candidates to assess. Dave
Absobloodylutely! Grant
Enough home work required as it is to cull the” wheat from the chaff” in the Local Government elections without adding the effort required for Central Government. Vernon
To me this is a must, look at what we have got in Auckland, a very nice person but a serial politican, with Labour leanings. Not good. Geoff
Turnout could be improved by electronic voting. Graham
One issue in relation to Local Body Elections is having to number councillors in preferential order. This seems to me to be a real off-putting exercise enough to turn some voters of totally. Peter
There are a lot of people to vote for in the local government election and trying ot remember who to vote for, or preparing a list to take with you to the polls will be just as bad as filling in the form at home. What is needed to stimulate local body elections is for the candidates to go out and engage with the people. I have heard talkback taking about dookknocers coming to explain their policies – but only one or two in a district. Logistiaclly how will it run for absentee voting? Already thet process is time consuming (I have done it) and so having to write out the DHB list for Auckland – all 25 names – would be a real headache. If our local elections were simpler then I might agree. Also, I am against electronic voting – it can be manipulated more easily than paper voting. And I think it’s great that we have civilian participation in the conduct of our general elections here – it is much harder to fudge the results because when you get about half a dozen civilians counting votes in a polling station, when the results are published station by station, then someone is going to pick up any irregularity. Anthony
Sensible. Graeme
Self explanatory, costs the tax payer less. Ian
Will save money too. Andrew
Makes sense. Dennis
Logical. Peter
Well worth a try. Brian
Definitely worth taking a second look at! Sylvia
What a depressing waste of time and money is ‘separate’ elections for local government. Carl
No. Elections should be two years apart and Compulsory CPR held at these elections to get democracy back into the Nation. Henry
I believe it would probably dilute both. Raymond
Certainly worth considering/pursuing. Having ‘tick’ for your candidate in some categories and then preferential (rate 1 to 9) for candidates in another category on the same voting paper seemed absurd to me. But then bureaucrats drive and thrive on confusion! Stuart
Yes I do believe that if it works towards getting more people to vote, then let’s try it. I do get upset when I hear people do not use their right to vote. But I do understand the pressures today for the families with both parents working, working weekends on housework, maintenance and everyday school homework with the children which is so critical for achievement in today’s world, I see it everyday in my own family, the local body elections require a lot of reading and research on the people standing for election and time is to precious for them to do that. Audrey
These are two entirely separate issues. Beryl
Would save tax and rate payers money. Murray
Voters primary concern would be the general election.To expect the average voter to give appropriate consideration to local body elections at the same time is expecting too much. Further it would cause confusion for some. Christopher
This would be a significant step to take us out of the quicksand of the current situation. Barry
I think it would be confusing. Too many names to consider. Kate
We should also have some polling booths open for a week before the actual polling day as well. Les
Makes a lot of sense. Karl
Too much confusion for the voters. Ray
And make both compulsory like Australia. Graeme
There seem to be good reasons to have elections at the same time. Neil
Just too much on one day and people need time to read the information about people standing for office. Robert
It would be too complicated for a lot. Colin
There are too many individual and separate issues that do not “cross over” – and, for most NZ councils, the day local body politics become muddied with party politics will see the disappearance of common sense and rationale from local body decision making. Jim
It would save taxpayer’s money. John
Absolutely – but I bet central government politicians won’t want local government raining on their parade! Darren
Yes, combining voting days is definitely worth pursuing, especially as too many people are now claiming the electronic voting is the panacea. Andrea
No – it doesn’t matter how few people vote. It means the ones that care get a stronger voice. Mike
Yes, combining voting to save money and make it all more convenient is a good idea. John
I support free speech and the right to vote or not vote. Making voting compulsory would be a disaster for NZ. Craig