Repeated inquiries have resolved that turnout, participation and representation in local elections would be enhanced if the Electoral Commission was running them, rather than councils and private companies.
Just over a fortnight ago, Orange Guy waved goodbye to the local elections. Having completed a promotional burst to encourage enrolment, the Electoral Commission and its brand personification headed off into the tangerine sunset. In marked contrast to general elections, the commission is not part of the local body ballots. That job is instead left to the councils themselves, who tend to contract out the running of the things to one of two private “election service providers”.
Emotional attachment to anthropomorphised orange blobs notwithstanding, the devolved operation of local elections compounds the fragmented, sometimes confusing nature of local body contests. So argue proponents for change. In the face of a dire lack of competition, with nominations so few that more than 50% of people standing in these races will be elected, and turnouts that have sunk as low, in the case of Auckland, to 35% of eligible voters, it is long past time, they say, to put the Electoral Commission in charge.
Supporters of the status quo counter that centralisation is anathema to the idea of local – devolved means devolved. And it would almost certainly end up costing more. But those calling to keep the system as it is are in a small minority, as far as submissions to parliamentary inquiries into the local elections of both 2016 and 2019 are concerned. The overwhelming message to the justice select committee after the last local elections, and after the local elections before that? Centralise. Those committees took it on board. The primary recommendations from both inquiries: centralise.
The response from the government, both times, was, in effect, we’ll think about it, maybe later. The question of centralising local elections does not figure in the terms of reference for the Future for Local Government review. And not only is it missing from the terms of reference for the electoral law review, it is expressly ruled out of scope.
The status quo
The exercise of franchise is a cornerstone of democracy, and that extends to local as well as central government. But while great resource has been poured into making that process as simple and streamlined as possible for a general election, it is by comparison a muddle when it comes to local contests. Voting systems differ from election to election. In Wellington, say, the mayor is elected by single transferable vote; in Auckland it’s a first-past-the-post footrace. Voting is by post, which suits some more than others.
Then there’s the hodgepodge of information. Across the councils and the companies to which the operations are outsourced – Auckland-based Election Services and Christchurch-based Electionz.com – the level of detail and data varies. If you’re looking for an official site to enter your address and find out which territory you’re voting in, you’re out of luck – or at least until Policy.nz launches on The Spinoff (coming soon).
There is no national promotional campaign. There is no single point of regulation or complaint for electoral rules on donations or advertising. There is no one official destination for results to be posted.
And there is a question of competence. The Electoral Commission is simply “likely to make fewer mistakes”, said Graeme Edgeler, a lawyer and electoral law expert. “The Electoral Commission is well respected. They do a good job. Sometimes local returning officers might, but some might not. Having a body like the Electoral Commission responsible for all of it adds to the public acceptance of the result.”
It was a mistake, he said, to relegate the issue down the political priority list, given the vulnerability. “Local elections are probably more fraught in terms of corruption,” he said. It would similarly make sense, he said, to align the rules for central and local elections across advertising, financing and disclosure, so that “the rules are the same for everyone”.
Were the Electoral Commission tasked with running local as well as national elections, they’d become “more of a national event”, said Julienne Molineaux, a local government expert and senior lecturer at AUT. Her research suggested that “when people don’t vote, about a third of them say there was a lack of information” – some even say they weren’t aware the thing was happening at all. A nationwide, coordinated campaign by the commission would help counter the broad “ignorance about local elections”, she said.
Placing responsibility with the Electoral Commission would remove any “risk of a conflict of interest” for council executives overseeing the process. And there was a “principled democratic question” to be asked, she said. “Should companies be making a profit out of running democratic processes?”
There were 21 submissions to the inquiry into the 2019 local elections that wanted to see full centralisation, with another 13 calling for parts of the process to be consolidated under the Electoral Commission. Local Government NZ, the association of local bodies, was in the latter camp, recommending that local authorities should appoint a deputy electoral officer who would look after public notices and nominations, with the remainder of responsibilities, including managing the voting process, declaring results, overseeing donations and investigating complaints, falling to the Electoral Commission.
Six submitters opposed the idea of the Electoral Commission running things. Among them were the two private companies currently contracted by councils to manage the process. They said the Electoral Commission was less equipped than them to deal with the “complexity” of the processes.
Jean Drage, an academic who specialises in local body politics, was another who opposed. She argued that the commission should be “responsible for running a major education campaign in the run up to these elections”, but that its role should stop there. “I do not believe they are capable of running individual elections across the country and, in fact, it is local input that is needed to actively engage voters to participate,” she said. Drage did, however, urge a review of legislation and a move to one voting system across the country, saying, “it is clear that two voting systems is a deterrent to voter participation”.
In its submission to the justice committee, the Electoral Commission indicated it was open to change, saying: “Given the complexity of local elections, different options could have significant implications for existing legislative, institutional and funding arrangements. The commission would welcome the opportunity to work with the Department of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, local government and policymakers to assist with the evaluation of current challenges, options for change and feasibility work.”
The committee itself was clear: in its primary recommendation, the inquiry into the 2019 local elections reiterated the urging of the 2016 edition on “giving responsibility for running all aspects of local elections to the Electoral Commission”. It found that “one of the main reasons for voter turnout decreasing since 1989 is the poor coordination and resourcing of local election campaigns” and noted a “theme running through our consideration: the lack of central coordination in certain matters that may affect the integrity of local election processes”.
Its clear assessment was that “centralising the running of local elections would reduce voter confusion, increase consistency of practice between councils, and likely increase voter participation.”
The political mood
That sense of deja vu in the 2019 elections review extended also to the government’s responses. It declared: “In responding to the committee’s report on the inquiry into the 2016 local elections, the government noted that centralising the delivery of local elections is a fundamental change that would need to be carefully worked through. The government previously agreed to consider the recommendation as other priorities allow, and restates that position in this response.”
A spokesperson for the minister for local government, Nanaia Mahuta, told The Spinoff the government would consider the recommendations of the justice committee inquiry “after the independent review of parliamentary electoral law and the ministerial review into the Future for Local Government”, noting that local representation and governance arrangements are in scope for the latter review.
The National Party’s position is best described as one of “mild interest”, said Paul Goldsmith, the opposition spokesperson for justice. They were “open to the discussion”, he said, but “centralisation doesn’t always yield better results”. A higher priority for National was “equal voting rights”, he said, pointing to the Canterbury Regional Council (Ngāi Tahu Representation) Bill, passed earlier this month, which allows for Ngāi Tahu to appoint two councillors.
Put simply, the issue is barely, if at all, on the political radar, despite the overwhelming support for an expansion of Orange Guy’s portfolio, for the Electoral Commission to take on the running of local elections, in the interests of competition, turnout, engagement and representation. The political will isn’t there, reckons Julienne Molineaux. “I think it’s just that it’s a big change, and the minister’s attention is elsewhere.”