Is voter turnout a problem?

Voter turnout has been trending down for decades. Is this a problem? Or should we not care about people who don’t care about voting, and just work on having better informed people who have an interest in voting?

The Opportunities Party has just released policy on democracy – The Opportunities Party – Democracy Reset – and has a detailed look at voter turnout data.


1. The Data

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Source: http://www.elections.org.nz/events/past-events/2014-general-election

Fewer and fewer people have confidence in our democracy. They simply don’t see voting as something that impacts on their lives. This is illustrated by the voter turnout.

In addition there’s a difference in the enthusiasm to vote between the age groups. The babyboomers are the most enthusiastic voters. In the 2014 election, 85% of eligible Baby Boomers or older voted (81% of that total cohort).

But for those under 50, only 70% of registered (or 51% of that total cohort) voted and it gets a lot lower for those under 30. For this cohort – weighed down by student debt and the prohibitive cost of getting on the first rung of the property ladder – only 62% of the registered (45% of the number of under 30’s) bothered to vote.

This alienation from the democratic process is not just a New Zealand phenomenon – right across the Western World, people are increasingly frustrated that their democracies are not serving them. There is even a significant difference in opinion on the value of keeping democracy between young and old. In the US 43% of oldies see it as illegitimate for the military to take over if the government is incompetent, yet only 19% of millennials feel like that. And in Europe the numbers were 53% and 36% respectively. The generation divide – wherein younger ones feel our so-called “democratic” government is not serving their interests – is stark.

Such a dichotomy between young and old can be seen from the following graph.

Percentage of people (identified by birth year) who believe it is “essential” to live in a democracy

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In our view there are three issues to address;

  1. the absence of an independent body that holds the government of the day to account on long term issues
  2. not enough empowerment of communities and direct participation for voters
  3. the lack of a well articulated and widely valued Constitution that makes it clear what all New Zealanders’ rights are

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.

Voting numbers

There’s a lot of talk about the voting numbers being abysmal in the local body elections.

Stuff reports on the poor turnout, and gives some comment:

Left-wing commentator Bryce Edwards said while there generally wasn’t a link between turnout at local body and general elections, both had seen participation fall over time.

The weekend’s low turnout was probably a result of it being a “business as usual election” with “really not much on the line and very little to inspire everyone”. …

Right-wing commentator David Farrar said there was a general downward trend in voter participation worldwide.

He agreed a lack of big political issues had contributed to turnout being low.

But postal voting had also been a significant factor. He knew “half a dozen people” who had forgotten to send off their ballot papers and had to race to the council offices to cast a last-minute vote.

“They have no relationship with a post office . . . and I think each year it’s going to get much worse with postal voting because the postal system is becoming less relevant.”

The Government has agreed to trial internet voting at the next election but Mr Farrar said it was not being implemented fast enough or widely enough.

David Farrar blogs some more on this: 

The Government has agreed to a trial for 2016, and I appreciate the efforts of Chris Tremain in getting this agreed to.

I’ve been involved with this issue since after the 2010 elections where I raised it at the select committee review of the election. I’ve met several Ministers over the issue, and various Mayors and people in Local Government NZ. A huge amount of work has gone on behind the scenes to make  an option for future local body elections (just an option, not to replace postal).  In fact all that is really needed from central Government is some regulations to be passed by Cabinet.

However the Department of Internal Affairs has been incredibly resistant to change, from what I have observed. If it were not for them, we could have been trialing e-voting in 2013.

A trial in 2016 is better than no trial at all. However the massively low turnouts should ring a warning bell that the status quo is not acceptable. Postal voting is a dying technology.

Regardless of whether e-voting is a solution to low turnouts or not it should be allowed because it’s catering for how a growing number of people interact online. I think it would make some difference, but on it’s own possibly not much.

Many people base their votes mainly or wholly on scant information and a photo in the election booklets. An online option should allow for links to much more detailed information on candidates.

Another thing that would help is for councils to engage much more effectively with people, and vice versa. This requires a lot of effort from both councils and from people to look at how to work together better, to create a better informed democracy. If people are more connected through the term they will be more likely to vote and will be better informed about what they are voting for,