One stop shop in action (image: supplied)

Postal voting is a flimsy antique. The future is social voting

There are still many barriers preventing people from voting in local elections. Laura O’Connell Rapira proposes some social solutions.

The Spinoff local election coverage is made possible thanks to The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.


To vote in the local elections, I cast a special vote at a very packed Porirua City Council on Saturday 12 October at 11.50am, just 10 minutes before the cut-off time. I had to do this after I didn’t receive my voting papers in the post, among a myriad of life and work admin.

I had arrived at 11:15am and was number 34 in line. Most of the people waiting to special vote were Māori, young or Pasifika. There were only two or three staff collecting special votes.⁣⁣

Some people saw the line and gave up because they’re people with busy lives, families to look after, kids to take to sports, groceries to buy. I managed to vote with ten minutes to spare, but I’m not sure about the folks behind me.

I left feeling like the user experience of local democracy is broken.

For the past five years, I have had the pleasure of working with hundreds of young people passionate about getting other young people to vote. We work hard to make voting a social event, and to engage young people in civic conversations.

In 2014, we organised parties where the only way a person could get a ticket was if they enrolled and made a promise to vote. The promise consisted of them giving us their name, email, phone number and ticking a box that said, ‘I promise to vote’. We weren’t trying to get people to vote for any particular party, just get the voting habit started. Research shows if you start voting young, you’ll keep doing it and if you don’t, you won’t, which is why our work is important. Democracy works best when everyone participates.

The author votes (image: supplied)

Thousands of people attended those parties. Volunteers called every person afterwards to help get them the information they needed to vote. Often we’d be asked questions like, ‘How do I enrol?’ ‘What is the difference between an electorate and party vote?’ At other times we’d have conversations where people would say things like, ‘I’m passionate about ending child poverty but I don’t know which policies work best for solving the problem’. We’d point people to non-partisan and credible sources like On The Fence, or organisations who work on the kaupapa they care about. We’d do this because one of the reasons young people don’t vote is because they don’t have enough information, or they have so much that they don’t know what or who to trust.

In 2017, we partnered with the cosmetics company Lush to encourage their young customers to vote. Staff would initiate conversations about the importance of voting and we had an in-store poll on an iPad where people were encouraged (again) to give us their name, email, and phone number but also to vote on what issue they cared about most, and who should be the prime minister. Beyoncé beat Gareth Morgan, Winston Peters and David Seymour as preferred PM. We then organised volunteers to individually text everyone who engaged with our poll to help them make a plan to vote.

The Lush voting campaign (Image: supplied)

Our work has always been about combining sizzle (parties, influencers, popular culture) with steak (grassroots community organising) to unleash the political power of young people. We believe in igniting and facilitating political conversations to give young people time and space to consider and inform their voting decisions.

In 2019, we ran our first ever local election campaign focussed on getting more young Aucklanders to vote. We co-hosted two pop-up one-stop-shops where people could enrol and vote at the same time. Hordes of young people turned up. Watching those events, I couldn’t help but think that the future of voting is social, not postal.

One stop shop in action (image: supplied)

Postal voting leaves young and marginalised people out because they move house more often than older Pākehā homeowners. ⁣Most young people can’t afford their own homes so they are beholden to the whims of (older) landlords, meaning they have to move around more and do a disproportionate amount of work just to stay enrolled.

People often jump to online voting as a silver bullet solution, but I’m not convinced. Tech experts say it isn’t safe and it doesn’t address the inequities that lead to lower voter participation rates in the first place. Of the young people who don’t vote, it is those who are also Māori, Pasifika, recent migrants, disabled, or from low education, low income or rural backgrounds who are the least likely to vote. Online voting won’t fix the discrimination and exclusion so many of these folks face. Making voting social, multi-lingual, easy and accessible will.

The future of local democracy needs to be resourced properly by central government so that people can have their say in real-life in the community. The final day for voting needs to run all day, not just until noon and one-stop-shops or voting booths have to become the norm. Assisted voting should also be resourced so folks with disabilities can vote more easily.

Equality researcher Max Rashbrooke wrote a paper called Bridges Both Ways which presented the idea of a ‘Kōrero Politics Day’. His pitch is that six or so weeks out from every general election, we should have a national public holiday with well-funded community events that combine music, art, politics, and other gatherings designed to foster civic discussion. This would underline the importance of politics, give people time and space to think about issues, and encourage a more reflective citizenship.

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I love this idea (and I love a public holiday) and I think it would work well for local elections too. It would give organisations like RockEnrol a rallying point to organise communities around and it would strengthen relationships in the community.

A friend told me that back in the day her Nana and their whānau would purchase one copy of the newspaper for the whole marae to discuss and debate, and when it came to elections they would get dressed up and travel to the polls to vote as a hapori.

We should be inspired by this, smashing all of the barriers to participation to make voting as community-oriented as possible. We have the potential, what we need now is people in power with the political will to make it happen.

The Spinoff local election coverage is made possible thanks to The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.



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