a split screen with an orange sign with an arrow and the words "voting"; on the other side an old-fashioned photo of a woman looking surprised
Image: Tina Tiller

ĀteaSeptember 19, 2023

Make voting sexy again: Why so many don’t make an election choice

a split screen with an orange sign with an arrow and the words "voting"; on the other side an old-fashioned photo of a woman looking surprised
Image: Tina Tiller

If those with the least wealth and privilege understood how much power they held collectively and exercised it at the polls, their voice really could make a difference.


My lover is walking around wearing a T-shirt that says “if the left votes, the left wins”. It makes me laugh – not the slogan, or the fact he’s wearing election merch – but the fact that I understand what it means. I remember during my first year of university, my social policy lecturer pacing back and forth in front of the whiteboard growing increasingly agitated as she attempted to break down the difference between the left and the right wings in politics. 

When the historical slides reached the 80s and 90s, I put up my hand. Again. Hadn’t the left just switched sides and become the right? What was the point of using a political spectrum to differentiate between parties, if their policies were interchangeable at the so-called “centre”, and indistinguishable at the extremes?

My ignorance was mistaken for belligerence. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to getting kicked out of a class. It might have been humiliating if not for the fact I knew I wasn’t the only one encountering the deeply contradictory nature of New Zealand politics for the first time.

In my household growing up, people were too busy working and surviving to have debates about political ideology. My mother always voted and she cared about issues, but laws were made in another land, far away – it seemed – from the reality of putting food on the table and shoes on our feet. I didn’t learn about politics or systems of government at home, and I wasn’t enlightened at school, so I arrived at the polls at the age of 18 without a clue and even less of a care. I didn’t vote the first time I was eligible. I remember my boyfriend at the time looking down on me (he was tall) and asking why in the hell not. Apparently it is unsexy not to vote. I shrugged and gave one of the most common answers non-voters give: 

My vote wouldn’t make any difference.

Other common reasons people don’t vote – according to Stats NZ’s 2021 General Social Survey – include: 

I didn’t know who to vote for

I didn’t like any of the candidates

I didn’t know enough about the issues

It doesn’t matter which party is in government

‘My vote wouldn’t have made a difference’

The belief that a single vote doesn’t make a difference is a difficult one to overturn. My brother never voted once in the 30-odd years he was eligible. His reasons were complex, understandable and valid. In 2017, I managed to get him all the way to a polling booth. I was sure I’d be able to convince him to go inside next time around, but by the 2020 election it was too late and he was gone. 

The silence of those who don’t vote – around 17% of the total population – is loud. That silence is proportionately louder among Māori and Pacific communities. In 2020, according to Electoral Commission data, the percentage of eligible Māori who didn’t vote was 27%. By comparison, 16% of non-Māori withheld their vote. Electoral data doesn’t distinguish Pacific people from that total, but the 2021 Stats NZ General Social Survey suggests the percentage of Pacific non-voters would be comparable to Māori.

What is that silence saying, and, crucially, who benefits from it?

This is the underlying question the slogan on my lover’s T-shirt wants us to ponder. The inference is that the wealth-havers (traditionally “right wing”), as a percentage of the total population, are a minority. The majority (traditionally “left wing”) are workers. These stereotypes can be shot apart in all kinds of ways, particularly when placed in the broader context of ecological collapse, but there is a seduction in the numbers: if those with the least wealth and privilege understood how much power they held collectively, and exercised it at the polls the same way a small number of wealthy people exercise it in political donations, their voice really could make a difference.

This not-so-clandestine knowledge needs to be worn on T-shirts, and reiterated over and over again, until non-voters become convinced not only that their voice matters, but that voting is, indeed, sexy. 

‘I didn’t know who to vote for’

One of the most perplexing things about electioneering is that it often feels like the most unlikely and unqualified people think they know everything and should be in charge. Some leaders have a confidence that borders on arrogance. Humility isn’t the virtue in politics that it is in community. Media interviews sound polished, inauthentic and monotonous. After a while, policy announcements reach a crescendo of white noise punctured by phrases so familiar they sound like a turntable skipping over scratched vinyl.

The reality is, you have to be a human bullshit detector to make sense of the big-ticket policy items like tax cuts and GST off fruit and veges, while not letting the spats about who’s being squeezed versus who’s being squashed draw your attention away from issues that, at the end of the day, cut right across the fiction of the political spectrum. Issues that cannot put more money in an individual’s back pocket without a cost to Ranginui and Papatūānuku, and therefore by extension, ourselves.

This is all while trying to block out the cheap and under-handed pop-shots taken by able-bodied cis-white men at the expense of the most hard-working and vulnerable among us. There are some genuinely decent and authentic people vying to enter parliament, but plenty of voters will turn up at the polls on October 14 with nothing more to base their vote upon than the colours of the rainbow floating above a sea of unknown names.

Some political slogans on an orange background
(Image: Archi Banal)

‘I didn’t like any of the candidates’

Mike, a retail salesperson from Porirua who didn’t want to be identified, told me that he doesn’t vote because he can’t be bothered. “Politicians are all as bad as each other. I don’t want any of them. Politics is a load of crap. You can’t believe anything anyone says.”

My 21-year-old son sympathises with this view. He told me that an election is like a garage sale. “You don’t actually want anything they’re selling. I understand why people don’t vote, it makes sense if you can see it’s all just junk. You might find a marble you want, but you can’t just have the marble, you have to take the snakes and ladders set as well, even though it’s broken and you have no use for it.”

Paul Douglas, an astrophysicist and mathematician, says that it’s worse than that, because whether you like it or not you’re coming home from that garage sale with something. “You’ll have to live with the government in charge, regardless, whether you cast a vote or not,” he says. Douglas understands the inclination not to participate in a system a person doesn’t believe in but as a statistician, he also understands intimately the power of fractions, however small. “The way that direct proportionality (MMP) is designed, even the smallest voices can be heard. People might not realise just how powerful their voices truly are.”

Ultimately, this is the reason my son votes, despite his underlying apathy. “Not voting is like not fighting at all. It’s like giving up without trying. And that’s actually what politicians want, because then they get to keep their power. It’s important to me to know that if I got the chance, I took it. You don’t fold without playing your hand. No matter how slim the chance, we’ve got to take it. It’s my last fuck you to the whole thing.”

‘I didn’t know enough about the issues’

Media personality and reo Māori advocate Sonny Ngātai credits his high school teacher, Pā Hona Black, with explaining the meaning of “left wing” and “right wing” to him. 

“But sometimes,” he says, “I look at people and I think, does voting ‘left’ mean that I care more about people and communities? Is that the difference between us? But surely voters on the right also care about people? And I also care about the economy. So you end up asking yourself, is politics about ideas and beliefs, or is it just about power?” 

His question reminded me of something my friend Ruia Aperahama once said to me: “Fancy titles don’t make people leaders. Leaders are those whose examples inspire us to follow.”

The author’s drawing of the pou of Ngake and Whātaitai at parliament

‘It doesn’t matter which party is in government’

I live close enough to parliament to walk in its shadow every day, but I usually avoid it and take the waterfront. It’s hard to find any connection between what happens inside those oak-panelled chambers and what I truly care about.

At the foot of the stairs of parliament where so many petitions have been laid by defiant and visionary protesters over the years, I found myself gazing up – not into the eyes of a politician, but the iridescent pāua of the taniwha siblings Ngake and Whātaitai.

These carved pou were unveiled a few weeks ago in partnership with mana whenua of Te Āti Awa. Like all pūrākau (Māori creation stories), there are different tellings, but the one I like captures the deep connection between the pair. Like my brother, Ngake was strong and feisty. Whātaitai, like me, was more reserved and strategic.

For eons, Ngake and Whātaitai lived in the freshwater lake that we refer to today as Whanganui-a-Tara, or Wellington. Before the lake was a harbour, Ngake and Whataitai were contained, hemmed in, surrounded by cliffs on all sides. They could hear the waves of the great moana Raukawakawa crashing and calling beyond, and Ngake yearned to be free. He knew that this lake was not all there was.

Whātaitai looked up to her brother and admired him, but she wasn’t nearly as defiant or certain of the way. Eventually, Ngake broke free. Ngake, the protestor, Ngake, the resistance fighter. He unleashed his coiled strength and smashed through the cliffs and liberated himself. Whātaitai wanted to follow but her strength was different. Her strength was collective rather than individual.   

I remember my brother raising his bottle to congratulate me on the election of “my government” back in 2017. I said “it’s your government too,” but he shook his head and assured me it wasn’t. 

Looking up at the pou symbolising Ngake and Whātaitai outside parliament, it occurred to me that the leaders we’re looking for aren’t in front of us, but behind us. The lesson of Ngake and Whātaitai is not about voting or not voting. It isn’t about left and right or red and blue. It’s about pathways to freedom. 

This system of government isn’t all there is. That’s a cross-party truth. But participating in the election – voting – doesn’t mean that we don’t also continue to protest and resist. There is duality to everything. That’s the lesson. We need individual strength and collective strength. We need to protest and participate. Sometimes we need Ngake’s coiled inner strength to smash through. Other times we need to work together to dig our way out to the great ocean beyond.

Today, Whātaitai lies between the peninsula of Miramar and the airport. You can see her shape clearly when you fly in, or from the top of Mount Victoria. The real name of that place is Tangi Te Keo, referring to the grief Whātaitai felt when she ascended the hill and looked down upon her stranded shape between the entrance to the harbour and te moana Raukawakawa. 

So the story goes, Whātaitai transformed into a bird. On a good day, you can still hear her calling out to her brother above the roar of jet engines taking off and landing, and taking off again.

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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