Addressing voter turnout

There’s no doubt there is a major problem with voter turnout and voter turnoff at local body level.

I’ve seen it up close in Dunedin, where turnout this year dropped about 10% to 43%. Comments indicated that people were not interested, not motivated, and they didn’t know anything or much about council or candidates. Many people who voted only had a vague idea who and what they were voting for.

ODT report University of Otago politics lecturer Dr Bryce Edwards ‘Dire’ voter turnout spurs inquiry suggestion.

A ”big discussion” was needed about the problem at a national level, probably most appropriately through an inquiry, University of Otago politics lecturer Dr Bryce Edwards said.

”A big part of the problem is that so much of the public don’t feel comfortable or confident in their choices because it is so hard to know what the actual ramifications are of voting for a lot of the candidates.”

A bigger problem is that people don’t know and/or don’t care. Apathy abounds.

All options for improving voter and candidate engagement needed to be considered in discussions, including all voting systems, such as compulsory voting, online voting and polling booths, he said.

These things certainly need consideration.

However, he believed reintroducing political parties into the contest would do the most to turn things around by giving voters a better idea of what candidates stood for.

I have serious doubts with this, I’ll address parties in local politics in a separate post.

The more technical fixes, such as voting systems, should be part of the debate, but people should not think that taking things online, for example, would dramatically change voter turnout.

Postal voting was brought in as a way of arresting the decline in voting and that had worked for a while.

”We might well see that with electronic voting too, but you actually need some substance with what’s on offer in the end regardless of its form of delivery.”

The biggest problem is not with how we can vote, it is in disinterest in voting.

Yes, you need some substance, but you can’t suddenly create substance in a month long campaign, especially involving so many candidates. In  Dunedin we voted for mayor, council, community boards (83 candidates), health board (13 candidates) and regional council (10 candidates). That’s over a hundred candidates, most of whom most voters haven’t heard of.

Add to that the complication of voting a mix of using both First Past the Post and STV. I’d bet that most people couldn’t say what STV stands for or how it works.

The practicality of providing in depth information about all these candidates is difficult to overcome. Few of us have any chance of being sufficiently informed about one hundred candidates.

I certainly wasn’t well enough informed about all of them, and I was more involved in the election than most people, standing for mayor and for council.

Some people did get to know about me during the campaign, but that was a small minority, and most people that got to know about me had some interest or involvement in politics and the election and would never consider voting for me.

The majority of people had never heard of me and in a month or two most of the minority who voted and might have seen my name or something about me will have forgotten.

It is difficult to overcome the number of votes and the number of candidates. Tweaking the way we vote will change little. Voting is like preparing for an exam that you haven’t done any study for.

One solution is to focus on the term and not the election. If people had a reason to become interested and engaged in local politics during the term, if they saw more of what our elected councils and boards did and had a way of engaging then they would have more interest and knowledge at election time.

This is what I will be working on, informing the public more and giving the public more and better ways of engaging throughout the term.

This won’t be easy, and it won’t be a quick fix, but I think it’s what needs addressing the most. Most people won’t be interested most of the time – but they need an easy and effective way of getting involved when they want to.

If people feel that they will be genuinely be listened to when they want to speak up they will be more inclined to make the effort to engage. And they will be more inclined to vote in three years time.

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1 Comment

  1. Tom

     /  15th October 2013

    I think that term limits need to be seriously considered, as the current crop of both elected members and candidates is somewhat stale.

    Every election year, the same stable of candidates stand time and time again, and either get elected by a core group of supporters, or continually and unsuccessfully contest on the same issues. Any new blood on the cards appears to get discouraged pretty quickly, either during the election process or within the first few months of being on Council. Eventually, my observation is that any new councillors quickly step into line with the encumbents.

    As a result the perception is that voting will not have an effect – council direction wont change, This breeds apathy amongst voters.


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