Another local election. Another bout of breast-beating over the lack of interest in standing for election and engaging in the act of voting. By Dr Jean Drage, political scientist.
Another call for an independent review of the local electoral process. And, again, the same debate on a lack of information and choices on the election itself – the candidates standing, postal voting, on-line voting, a specific voting day, the voting age and so on. Yes, we have heard it all many times. This time we even heard from the Minister of Local Government that she hadn’t even received her voting papers!
The reality is that we know why voters don’t flock to the polls to vote for their local mayors and councillors. Much research has been done in this space and findings presented to the parliamentary select committee that reviews these local elections every three years. Even the team reviewing the future for local government heard from the many on what needs to happen in the local electoral space. Instead of lamenting what went wrong, we need to be asking why doesn’t this ever change.
The major reason for a low voter turnout can be summed up in three: The weak link between our elected representatives and voters that has widened with changes in the size of our local authorities and councils; the electoral process; and the local/central government divide.
While the average voter turnout has fluctuated over the years, it has never reached the number who turn out to vote in our parliamentary elections. New initiatives along the way, like the introduction of postal voting had some impact at the time but long term overall voter turnout has always wobbled around the mid 40 percent mark.
The alarm bells have rung louder, however, since the restructuring of local authorities in 1989 and the new electoral options of 2001 have seen voter turnout sliding even further down.
An average of 40 percent of eligible voters cast a vote in the 2022 local elections, the lowest overall turnout to date. However, breaking these numbers down geographically shows the urban/rural divide here where rural areas had the highest overall voter turnout at 49 percent, provincial areas averaged 44 percent turnout and as usual, the cities dragged the average down with a 40 percent turnout.
While not dissimilar to past elections the common denominator in these differences is the size of a local authority and the number of electors each councillor represents (known as the representation ratio).
The restructuring of local government in 1989 saw two thirds of our local authorities wiped from the electoral map along with a similar reduction in the number of elected positions. Thirty years later the number of councillors has reduced by a further 30 percent, mainly as a result of those representation reviews where smaller groups of decision-makers are now preferred by councils.
This erosion in numbers has widened the gap between councillors and the growing number of constituents that they represent. In 1989 the representation ratio was 4809 in city councils. Today it is almost 15,000 in Wellington, 25,000 electors in Christchurch and around 60,000 in some wards in Auckland. And potential voters don’t know their local councillors and certainly don’t run into them in the supermarket as used to be the norm!
Well under half actually voted in these cities in 2022 despite the vigorous election campaigns for mayor – in Auckland it was only 35 percent. This is in stark contrast with many rural councils where turnout was well over 50 percent (in a few cases 60 percent), areas where councillors can represent around 1500 electors. Knowing one’s local representatives is clearly an incentive to actually vote for them.
The way our local elections are now run has also become a barrier to participation. The irony is that when the Local Government Electoral Act was rewritten in 2001, councils were given more options to encourage participation, through a choice of electoral systems and requirements for more information on candidates standing for election.
Currently, voters receive a package of voting forms in the mail, featuring a large number of (usually unknown) candidates standing for their city or district council, community boards and regional council and in some cases, a local licensing trust.
To cast their vote, they need to read candidate profiles that often tell them little and spend time looking for more information, if it is available. They then need to ensure they use the correct process for voting – a tick if it is an FPP election and a ranking of candidates one, two, and three if STV is used (as was the case in 14 council elections in 2022).
So, voting has become complex and time consuming. Even the absence of district health board elections last year didn’t appear to have helped here. Research tells us that almost a third of registered electors don’t vote, despite being interested in doing so, because they don’t have enough information about the candidates or their policies and don’t necessarily know where to find this.
And, in the last election, we also had the extra concerns for many about inadvertently voting for Voices for Freedom candidates whose policies appeared to be to keep this quiet.
Councils are required to actively engage voters in the democratic process and, while a few are trying some innovative approaches here, we know that many councils remain risk averse when it comes to these elections, and do little apart from administration.
And, clearly there are growing difficulties around the postal voting system with reports of voting packs not arriving and post boxes hard to find.
Finally, it is clear that central government is just not interested in addressing the grim reality here.
Select committee reviews following every local election receive substantive submissions and recommendations made but little changes.
As well, the local/central government relationship is currently at an all-time low with the centralisation policies of the current Government giving a clear message to voters on the relevancy of our local councils, rather than the important role local government has in the democracy of this country.