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(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

OPINIONPoliticsOctober 19, 2023

Want to increase voter turnout next time? Make election day fun

(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

For the cost of 5 million sausages, bunting, bands and bubbles, we could get a lot more people to the polls in 2026.

There’s nothing like a trip to the polling booth to make you feel as if you’re part of something. Or several things: a community, a town, a city, an electorate, a country. I know I’m not the only weirdo to have come over all teary when I cast my vote last Saturday. The general atmosphere where I lined up to tick my boxes was buoyant, even downright excitable. There were dogs, there were kids, there were old mates seeing each other for the first time in ages, there were families, friends and strangers. It was fun. But it could have been way funner.

On October 15 The Spinoff reported that 78.4% of eligible voters went through with the box-ticking and paper posting on polling day, which is down on 2020’s record year of 82.2%. Coaxing the public to exercise their democratic rights is quite some task. Made more difficult, one could suggest, when there’s a near-absence of civics education woven into the school curriculums. 

Luna and Juno were among the faithful friends who accompanied their owners to the polls on Saturday (Photo: supplied)

While 78.4% isn’t a bad result, the silent chorus is a hefty 21.6% of eligible voters who didn’t add their voice to the national tussle over who we want to be in charge of, well, almost everything. 

So how do we get those 1,060,038 people to make their way to the polling booth?

One word: Democrafest.

Why not make polling day a national festival of democracy? Why not throw in some bunting, some sausages, your local musicians and street performers, a splodge of face paint and call it a party? A Votefest, an Elect-o-rama, a Pollathon, an Elect-a-fest.

Because it’s the feelings that matter when it comes down to converting a message into an action. If something feels like a tedious chore then it’s hardly going to lure a person away from the raft of other tedious chores that often greet them on their hard-earned weekend days off. But if polling day offered the chance for some light entertainment, some heart-fuelling community gathering, a sausage and an hour of free entertainment for the kids, then that’s looking a lot more like a democratic process to get behind.

When Covid swept the globe and landed firmly on our islands, the government poured time and effort and money into a multi-platform campaign to rally the nation to “Unite Against Covid-19”. This government document outlines a comprehensive plan to encourage vaccination, and this one lays out the thinking behind such strategies as “Super Saturday” and the event the day was in aid of, the “Vaxathon”. 

Super Saturday, which happened roughly two years ago, in mid-October 2021, is described in the literature as a “national day of action”, and as “a good opportunity to encourage anyone yet to receive their second dose to do so as part of this day of celebration.”

The key word there is “celebration” and paired with the cheerily familiar neologism, “Vaxathon”, it’s a tantalising vision for those of us who enjoy a mildly twee attempt to do the right thing. At the time, The Spinoff’s Duncan Greive wrote about Super Saturday, and suggested that while the idea sounded “forlorn” and “somewhat lame” (let’s remember, lockdown does bad things to a writer’s state of mind), the day turned out to be a huge success. Super Saturday saw 130,000 vaccinations dispatched into the upper arms of some of our most impacted communities – the kind of result that only happens when “the might of the state and our community and business sectors collide”, Greive wrote, adding that “It might be worth our trying to harness it again.”  

Fush restaurant owner Anton Matthews hands out free fish & chips at the Pages Road Vaccination Centre on October 16, 2021, aka Super Saturday. (Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

And look, DemocrafestTM is not a new idea. We are a country that has long enjoyed a gathering – from the rugby stadium, to the local park, to the music festival, to the school fair. And we are bloody excellent at offering our time and our resources to a good cause: not a year goes by without a story about how generous and giving New Zealanders are. We’ve done all of this before. Even before the Vaxathon, Māori and Pacific communities were already holding fun, local events with music, food and spot prizes. And long before Covid was a twinkle in some demon’s eye, we had years of Telethons. All of those warm collective memories mean that a good whack of eligible voters come over all nostalgic and willing when a “thon” word is thrown around. Nostalgia is an excellent strategy for festival creation and that’s what Democrafest, or Vote-a-thon or Elect-o-rama, could utilise.

For the cost of roughly five million sausages (enough for voters plus families because the civics-goddess knows the way to a child’s developing, democratic little heart is through their tomato-sauce lined stomach), 2,300 local bands (enough for one per voting place, though people would certainly be more likely to travel if there was entertainment), 2,300 face painters, and strings of bunting, we could have a national, but beautifully localised, festival that elevates the fact that every three years we can all turn up together to be brilliantly coherent just by putting felt tip to paper and slipping it into a cardboard box. We can all be counted and our kids can walk away thinking: voting is actually really fun, can’t wait ‘til I’m 16.

Keep going!