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An artist’s impression of local election turnout in New Zealand
An artist’s impression of local election turnout in New Zealand

Local ElectionsSeptember 24, 2019

The true impact of New Zealand’s wildly uneven voting statistics

An artist’s impression of local election turnout in New Zealand
An artist’s impression of local election turnout in New Zealand

It’s Spinoff youth voting week, where youth votes count double*. In recognition of the occasion, Tim Muller and Logan Penniket studied how dire youth voting statistics distort our local democracies.

The Spinoff local election coverage is entirely funded by The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.

Local government elections are upon us. About 3.3 million voting packs are making their way to people’s letterboxes, after which most of them will make a short journey into our nation’s recycling bins and fireplaces. Don’t mistake this opening stanza for sarcasm or fatalism. It’s a sad, simple fact that most New Zealanders don’t vote in local elections.

As the graph shows, voter turnout in local elections is consistently 30-odd percent lower than for general elections. It’s getting worse too, reaching a new low in 2013 and 2016 at just over 40 percent. If fewer than half of enrolled voters bothered to show up for a general election (let alone five elections in a row), people would say our democracy was in crisis. They would be right.

Turnout in New Zealand general and local elections, 1987-present. Local election figures are the average for district/city mayors, regional/district/city councils, and community boards (trusts and DHBs excluded – don’t get us started on DHBs). Turnout is as a percentage of enrolled voters (not eligible voters), so these figures are a little flattering, if anything.

And local government is no less critical. Sure, central government may hold the highest-profile portfolios, but the functions of local government are also essential for healthy, well-functioning societies, even if we take them for granted. We would never tolerate piles of uncollected waste in our streets, or lives put at risk due to preventable flooding. Local governments (specifically regional councils) are also the primary stewards of water quality, which according to a recent poll was the most important political issue to New Zealanders.

None of this makes the work of local government sexy – no one’s getting onto council this year with the slogan “Make sewers great again”. But local government is the bassist in New Zealand civilisation’s rock band: if it performs well, you’ll hardly notice it; but if does badly, the whole thing could fall apart quickly.

We ignore local government at our peril. But that’s exactly what most of us have been doing for decades. Voter turnout is near its historic low, and participation between elections (like in consultation) is about as popular as paying the rates being consulted on.

The conventional wisdom is that low voter turnout in national elections favours the political right. But that’s in the context of small fluctuations in turnout within a narrow range (about 75-85 percent). What happens when turnout is around half that level, as in recent local elections?

The impact of low voter turnout depends on who isn’t turning out. Research by Local Government New Zealand shows that it’s mostly young people: 18-24 year olds are less than half as likely to vote as people aged 65 and over. This youngest age group also accounts for nearly half of the eligible voters who weren’t enrolled by July 31st. The graph below shows the mismatch between the age split of eligible voters and those who actually turn out to vote. If 2016 voting patterns are repeated this year, almost half of those who vote will be 55 or older – despite the median eligible voter being in their mid-40s. And there’s a similar, though less extreme mismatch with ethnicity – in 2016, Māori and Pākehā voted more, and other ethnic groups voted less.

Older voters (darker shades) have disproportionate influence because their share of votes cast (bottom bar) is greater than their share of the population (top bar). Based on estimated eligible voter numbers from the Electoral Commission and voter turnout data from Victoria University of Wellington and LGNZ.

It doesn’t take a political scientist to see that the composition and priorities of councils will be skewed towards those who elect them. In New Zealand that means the disproportionately older and whiter (and consequently often wealthier) parts of society. Of course, those groups deserve a say like everyone else, and good on them for getting out and voting. But problems arise when their interests differ from the wider population. For example, councils are less likely to do their bit to make housing more affordable when the people who vote also benefit from rising house prices.

Pākehā (dark blue) also have disproportionate influence relative to their share of the voting-age population. Based on Stats NZ ethnic population data from the 2013 census (people aged 15 and over then) and voter turnout data as above.

Another big divergence is on climate change, where younger people have a much stronger incentive for action than those whose concern with future events tapers off in a decade or two (sorry guys!). Alarmingly, earlier this year several New Zealand mayors were reluctant to affirm the scientific consensus on climate change – which is a bit like the minister of health doubting the existence of broken legs.

Low engagement in local government extends beyond voting in elections. Poor representation of youth and ethnic minorities is also noticed in consultation processes, as shown in this analysis of Auckland Plan 2050 submissions. More generally, New Zealanders are less likely to follow local politics compared to the national level, and less likely to make their views known, except on a few hot-button topics. Most people with a passing interest in politics could name four or five government ministers. How many could do the same for their local councillors? In this context there’s a risk that councils aren’t properly held to account, resulting in bad decisions – and the councillors who made them – sliding under the electoral radar.

Because voters aren’t as familiar with the candidates, current office holders have a huge advantage. Across the last three elections, mayors running for re-election were successful 83 percent of the time. In 2016, 43 out of 48 sitting mayors were re-elected. This can lead to some mayors having tortoise-like longevity: Tim Shadbolt has been mayor of Invercargill for around 23 of the last 26 years – the equivalent of Jim Bolger still being prime minister today.

So why don’t New Zealanders care about local government? The main reason is probably the most obvious one: many local government issues just aren’t seen as exciting. We tend to tune in only when something goes wrong. Nobody paid much attention to town water supplies until 5000 residents of Havelock North fell ill with campylobacter, at which point drinking water quality (and the councillors who can manage it) turned out to be kinda important after all.

Another reason for low engagement is limited knowledge. For many voters, the booklet of five-line biographies enclosed with the voting papers is the only information to base a decision on. And it’s not just the brevity – those biographies tend to be vague statements that make fortune cookies seem like paragons of precision.

Even the more engaged public can struggle to find the information they need to make an informed decision. Candidates’ websites (if any) are often equally vague. Voters also aren’t well informed by the media, whose tight deadlines and shrinking revenue compromise coverage of local issues.

So far, so depressing. But, unlike gravity and apparently Brexit, declining voter turnout in local elections is not an unstoppable force. As youth-adjacent people ourselves, we believe there are ways to engage our peers (and of course many in government are actively working to do so already).

Firstly, it’s clear that many New Zealanders would benefit from being better informed about local government. A good starting point would be boosting the time devoted to local democracy in schools – hopefully as part of a broader increase in civics education. If there’s time to learn about imaginary numbers and oxbow lakes, surely we can also study how our communities are governed.

A big help would be increased media coverage of local government. We know media companies have limited resources for this. So perhaps there is a role for government to set up a fund – like NZ on Air – to enable serious analysis and criticism of local issues, like this UK scheme. This should prevent candidates from getting cheap publicity with unworkable proposals and outrageous statements, while dodging the scrutiny and/or ridicule they deserve.

Another approach – and we never thought we’d say this – is for political parties to become more active at the local level. Despite their downsides, parties provide a useful guide to the likely views and ideology of candidates, as well as vetting to filter out those likely to cause embarrassment.

Local governments should be looking at new ways to inform and get input from their communities. In an era where everything from pizza to the future love of your life is only a click away, it’s only logical to use technology to make it easier for people to share their views and concerns. Councils should be especially proactive in seeking input from groups who are traditionally less engaged.

Of course, responsibility doesn’t just lie with councils. Living in a democracy comes with both privileges and responsibilities, and foremost in the responsibilities category is being an informed and engaged citizen, especially during elections. A frequent excuse from non-voters is that it “doesn’t make a difference”. Hopefully we’ve persuaded you that the decision not to vote made by many, mostly young, New Zealanders certainly does have consequences. It’s too late to enrol and have your voting papers sent in the mail, but it’s definitely not too late to cast a special vote, or to get those voting papers out of the recycling bin and get researching. If you put them in the fire though… sorry! Try again next time.

Tim Muller is an environmental chemist, science communicator, and data nerd at Landpro. Logan Penniket is a policy advisor at a central government agency. The opinions in this article are their own.

Thanks to Marece Wenhold (Victoria University of Wellington) for providing the LGNZ survey data.

*Legal disclaimer: this is not true

The Spinoff local election coverage is entirely funded by The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.

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