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Image: Archi Banal
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OPINIONPoliticsJuly 8, 2022

Should councils be responsible for running their own elections?

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

While there’s an independent body in charge of the general election, local councils are tasked with managing their own. How they choose to do so can have a significant impact on who takes part, argues Jonny Osborne.

Voting in our local elections is easy. You get sent your voting papers in the mail, fill them out and send them back. Simple. Job done.

But what happens if you don’t get sent your papers? Say you’re a student, swapping mouldy flats each year, and you forgot to update your details with the Electoral Commission. Or you’re one of the many who can’t afford to buy a house and face the grim instability of New Zealand’s rental market. Maybe you don’t have a home at all. 

Well, you can cast what’s called a special vote. Don’t let the name fool you: it’s not that special and it’s not that easy to do. 

Special votes are a way that eligible voters can participate in an election despite not having – or having completed – the requisite paperwork. Processing special votes is more expensive as it takes time – and someone – to check the vote can be legally cast. In our general elections you can cast a special vote at any polling station in the country. In our local elections, not so much. 

(File photo – Radio NZ)

Returning to our student from above. Let’s say she’s based in Wellington, and imagine she’s shifted to the depths of Karori, forgotten to leave a forwarding address at her old flat in Island Bay, and in the turmoil of sorting out the bond, the power bill and the new bus routes, she’s forgotten to update her details with the Electoral Commission. But she’s keen as to vote. 

So what can she do? If it’s not yet August 12, she can update her details with the Electoral Commission. Our student then simply waits for her postal ballot before voting to her heart’s content. Easy peasy. 

What if our student’s love of local democracy blooms on August 13? Then it becomes a little trickier. Our student has to trek into town, find the one and only “special voting station” in the city and cast her vote. That’s right: in Wellington, the heart of New Zealand’s democracy, there will be one polling booth for voters that don’t have a postal ballot.

In this regard Wellington does appear to be somewhat of an outlier. If our student lived in Christchurch she could cast a special vote in one of nine locations. In Hamilton that number is eight and Dunedin has several booths planned. Auckland has seven locations for special voting and plans to once again provide “one-stop shop” mobile booths at markets, marae and campuses, an initiative credited with a 50% rise in special votes in 2019. 

Sure, if our student’s keen to vote, she will find a way to do so. But you have to wonder if it couldn’t be just a little easier to take part in our local democracies. 

It’s no secret that turnout in our local elections is poor. Woeful even. In 2019 less than 50% of eligible voters cast a vote in a mayoral election, usually the contest that generates the most coverage and comment. In our major urban centres that number drops further, with turnout in the low 40s or high 30s. If participation is the key indicator of democracy’s success, New Zealand’s local elections would be awarded a “not achieved”. 

The Electoral Commission’s Orange Guy and Pup (Photo: Electoral Commission)

In parliamentary elections, the Electoral Commission controls every aspect. When it comes to local elections, however, the commission is responsible only for maintaining up-to-date electoral rolls and encouraging people to enrol in time to vote. Local councils are in charge of everything else. 

Perhaps it’s time to reassess who is responsible for running our local elections. This is not to cast aspersions on our councillors, who mostly are good people trying to make good choices for their community. But it doesn’t require a great stretch of the imagination to see that mayors and councillors voted in by a small section of their community might feel threatened if the pool of voters suddenly grew. 

Maybe an independent operator would be more willing to identify the flaws with postal voting. Or conclude that special voting booths should be more widely spread. Or decide that local elections are just as important as general elections and so should be afforded the same level of resource. Or maybe, just maybe, it might conclude that one special voting booth in a city the size of Wellington just isn’t right. 

An independent body running our local elections is unlikely to be a panacea that suddenly sees voter participation rise to match the levels of our general election. Engaging and informative media coverage of inspiring candidates remains the surest path to increasing our turnout. But in the absence of that, an independent body might just be worth a try. 

You can check your details are correct or enrol to vote here.

Disclaimer: The writer has voluntarily helped Tory Whanau’s campaign for the Wellington mayoralty, which is how he became aware of this issue. These views are his own. 

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