Whose job is it anyway? Inside our inadequate, uncoordinated efforts to up voter turnout

Turnout in our local elections has long been in decline, particularly among the young. Alex Braae looks at what’s being done to improve those stats, and find a lack of centralised funding and strategy.

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

This year, more than half the country is unlikely to cast a vote for who should be their local representatives, based on recent elections. Right now around 10% of the eligible population aren’t even correctly enrolled to do so. Among people aged 18-24, the number of people not correctly enrolled blows out to more than a third of the cohort.

And the worst part about it? It’s basically too late to fix this massive democratic deficit in time for October’s elections.

Local elections are conducted on a postal system, which means that voting papers are sent out in advance. But the deadline for voters to update their address details with the Electoral Commission in order to be sent voting papers has been and gone.

People who aren’t correctly enrolled can still vote, but the barriers to doing so are much higher. It raises the likelihood of the local elections totally bypassing a huge proportion of the electorate. Young voters will be the worst affected.

Part of the responsibility for that rests with the individual voters. New Zealand’s compulsory enrolment laws are rarely enforced, and given those not enrolled tend to be younger and poorer, handing out fines would almost certainly do more harm than good.

But in a strange quirk for local elections, there’s no single organisation with a nationwide responsibility to drive up turnout rates. The Electoral Commission is required to do this for general elections, but each individual local election is run by the local authority itself. For the Electoral Commission, their statutory responsibility for local elections ends at enrolment.

They make a range of efforts to reach those who wouldn’t otherwise be enrolled. National manager of enrolment and community engagement Mandy Bohté said attempts were made to make contact with people before the deadline. 

The organisation also intends to start a text message campaign for those they have mobile phone numbers for. Bohté said she wanted people to know that if they receive a text from the Electoral Commission in the near future, it isn’t a scam.

“That’s why we send out really strong messages as part of our campaign, and as part of our community engagement. If you’ve moved, you absolutely need to go and double check, make sure your information is up to date, and if not, update it. It doesn’t take long. It’s pretty easy, and that just ensures you’re in the right place to take part.”

Bohté also said they work closely with campaigns operating on the ground, and “talk about the importance of those elections on your everyday life.” The Electoral Commission spends around $5 million on their enrolment campaign. They send a mailout to everyone they can, and undertake a wide range of other advertising and events. 

But that is dwarfed by spending on the most recent general election, as broken down in its 2018 annual report. Between making elections run, promoting them, maintaining the electoral roll and the broadcasting allocation, the Electoral Commission spent a bit over $20 million, with the segment of spending on electoral roll maintenance accounting for $11.7 million. Their turnout figure for that election was the best it had been in more than a decade. 

Auckland councillor and North Shore candidate Richard Hills says the Electoral Commission efforts around local and general elections are unbalanced. “The Electoral Commission puts so much effort into the central government elections, and only a little into local government.”

“I did see one enrolment station at the Glenfield Countdown, so I assume they’re around, but I swear I’ve heard more radio ads from the Electoral Commission to hire staff for the next [general] election, than for this election.”

A RICHARD HILLS ELECTION HOARDING PUT UP BY PHANTOM BILLSTICKERS. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Local Government NZ also put some of its limited resources behind campaigns for turnout, engagement and enrolment, alongside the Society of Local Government Managers. But neither of those two organisations have a statutory requirement to do that either. 

It all leaves councils to fend for themselves, and make do with what they can. Legislation passed earlier this year requires the chief executives of councils to facilitate and foster “substantial elector participation” in elections held in their region. Effectively that means the onus is on the councils to front up the money to get people voting. Unfortunately, many of them have a tight budget to spend on essential services, let alone the sort of large-scale outreach efforts required to boost turnout.

When it was debated in parliament, a handful of MPs spoke in favour of the legislation, arguing it was good to put the onus on impartial council executives rather than elected members. Labour list MP Jamie Strange said “if we leave it to the councillors, there could be biases involved. For example, some councillors will benefit from low turnout. Others would benefit from high turnout.” 

But it was basically a technical change that didn’t result in any extra resources from central government being put towards the task. In the terminology of parliament, it was one of many “unfunded mandates”. Councils are essentially charged with putting together an uncoordinated, hodgepodge effort to boost turnout, each of them running campaigns according to the levels of resources available. 

Jackie Evans, the electoral officer for the Hastings District Council, says a range of activities have been taking place in her area, including targeting young people and new citizens with encouragement to enrol. 

However, Evans also said that “the new requirements for the Electoral Act were enacted in May 2019 – just five months before the election and well into financial and resource planning for the 2019 election which commenced in earnest in January 2019.” The requirements to meet it were coming from existing budgets, “and by the hard work of existing council and election and Electoral Commission staff.” 

New Plymouth District Council External Relations Manager Jacqueline Baker acknowledged that voter turnout in the district had been falling in recent elections, in large part due to voter apathy and confusion. “So we’re trying to shake it up,” she says. The council has set aside $30,000 for a campaign “demystifying and explaining how [council] touches our lives every day,” she said.  

The campaigns run by councils all include efforts to target groups that are under-represented in enrolment, and the spending varies according to size. Christchurch City Council is spending $80,000, with an advertising budget weighted towards online. They’ve also had to manage major redrawings of local boundaries this year. 

Some councils have precious little to spend. The Far North District Council have put $10,000 towards a joint campaign, with others around the region also contributing. Their budget has also shifted towards social media, particularly video “that focuses on authentic Northland voices.” However, the amount of money put towards boosting turnout hasn’t increased since 2016 – an election in which the Far North had among the lowest voting rates in the country. 

The Auckland Council has more to spend here than most, but also a far larger population to cover, and far more demands on ratepayer money than other councils. For this election, they’ll be running one-stop-shops for the first time that allow people to enrol and vote then and there. They also have voter booths in every library and place where Council services are delivered, and have been sending teams to university orientations and marae.

However, Richard Hills said that still raises logistical problems for voters. “They’re spread pretty thin, and unless you’re in those places physically, it’s pretty hard to get out there.”

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It’s clear Hills is frustrated at the lack of action on increasing local election turnout, despite it being a long-running problem. “Most of the measurement we have after elections, it’s very sketchy on why people don’t vote. And every year we dwell on those numbers, and don’t really know how to act on them,” he said.

For now, councils will have to continue to shoulder the burden for increasing enrollment and turnout through local campaigns. In increments, these smaller accumulations of money eventually add up. And there is an argument to be made that councils will be better at spending on promoting their local elections, rather than having that funding centralised.  

But taken nationwide, turnout is once again likely to be low, and weighted towards those of a generation more adept at using the postal system. And once again, young voters probably won’t have the numbers on their side.

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


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