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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Local Elections 2022August 24, 2022

Why do so few people vote in local elections?

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Voter turnout for local body elections is low across the board – but it’s far lower in some regions and demographics than others. Emma Vitz looks to the data for reasons why.

A few weeks ago, an envelope from the Electoral Commission appeared under the door of my office. Orange Guy had found me, and he had demands.

Local elections are a funny thing. In theory, it’s great that we have a way to influence the appointment of local representatives. In practice, turnout is low, and those who do vote are often doing so based on scant information and an underlying sense of confusion as to who and what they’re actually voting for. Heading into the 2022 local elections, I decided to look into who votes, who doesn’t, and why.

In the 2019 local body elections, overall voter turnout sat at 42.2% across the country. This varied a lot by region, with some remote areas like Westland and the Chatham Islands reaching over 65% turnout, while Auckland scraped in at just over 35%.

There is a clear relationship between the size of the population and the turnout for local body elections. Auckland, our largest council, had the second lowest turnout in the country, and Christchurch, Wellington and Hamilton didn’t fare much better. Meanwhile, regions with smaller populations like the Kaikōura and Mackenzie districts saw a turnout of over 60%.

Research by Local Government NZ suggests people are less likely to vote in local body elections than central government elections because they don’t perceive them to be as important. This may be because local governments raise less taxes, provide fewer services and generally have less power and influence over people's lives. With that in mind, why do we see such a gap in turnout between large cities and smaller regional areas?

Home ownership

The only form of tax raised by local government in New Zealand is property tax, more commonly known as rates. If being a homeowner and having to pay rates to the council makes people more conscious of local governments' influence in their lives, they might be more likely to vote.

Home ownership is more common in smaller regions than in large cities – could this help explain the gap in turnout?

There does seem to be a relationship between home ownership and voter turnout in local elections. In Auckland, 33.9% of people owned their home in 2018, and voter turnout was 35.2% in the 2019 local election. Christchurch City sat at around 41% for both home ownership and voter turnout. Meanwhile, smaller regions like the Carterton and Buller Districts had home ownership rates of over 55% and turnout of just over 58%.


Larger cities also tend to have younger populations, and younger people are less likely to vote. In 2016, those aged 18-24 were about half as likely to vote in local elections as those who were over 65. This might be because of a lack of interest in local politics, or because young people are more likely to be moving around for work and study, and don’t see the point of voting for a local government in an area they don’t plan on staying in.

In 2022, 68.4% of 18-24 year olds were enrolled to vote by the end of July, compared to over 98% of those aged 70 or older, so this trend looks set to continue.

Familiarity with the candidates

Perhaps most obviously, it’s harder to actually know your candidates in bigger cities. The most common reason given for not voting in the 2016 LGNZ post election survey was “I don’t know enough about the candidates”.

It makes sense that this would be more common in large cities, where local government represents hundreds of thousands of people. In a smaller region of several thousand people, you're more likely to have a personal connection with the people standing for local government.

I recently tweeted that voting in local elections is like getting a haircut, in that I’m being asked to make a decision that I would rather outsource to an informed external party. It feels like a chore. But for better or worse, that’s not how this works. It’s on us to do the research to make sure we don’t walk away looking silly.

Keep going!