Mixed options for improving local government voting

With the dust having largely settled on the weekends election results, and councils getting ready for swearing in ceremonies, it has become clear that a record low turnout of voters has occurred. And given the pride New Zealand places on itself being a democratic nation, this is quite problematic.

It is true that local government elections have never been a terribly high priority for a lot of New Zealanders in terms of their participation in New Zealand democracy. However, when the second largest city in the country has four City Councillors elected unopposed, no one can refute the idea that there is a significant problem that needs to be addressed before the next local government election in 2019. More concerning, is that the percentage of voters who turned out was significantly under 50%. This happened in Christchurch where a number of councillors were re-elected unopposed. Only 39% of the eligible voters turned out. The Environment Canterbury election for seven new councillors in the first elections since Government appointed Commissioners took over in 2010 saw only 37% of voters cast recognized votes.

This cannot be allowed to continue for several reasons. First and foremost these elections are about people whose decision making will have immediate impact on ones rates, civic amenities in their area and future planning for where one lives. The reasons given in one article I read at the weekend, whilst digesting the election results had some unfortunate home truths. So, if we as a nation are going to address this issue, then what are the options?

Since the election cycle ended on Saturday, there have been calls for online voting to be introduced. Whilst this is certainly a credible option that will have rapport with younger generations who tend to be more online, it should not replace the ballot paper and polling booth approach. Not all people are connected to the internet or have a computer capable of an internet connection.

Some people have suggested that New Zealanders simply forget to vote. They point to the three week period over which people can vote and the lack of urgency because it is not on a set date or weekend that all voting has to be done, the potential is there to forget that underneath the bills are your ballot papers. So, one obvious suggestion is to shorten it to a week or weekend. This is my preferred suggestion.

Others say they simply do not care. This is probably true for most of the people who did not vote – it is simply not something that interests or concerns them so they simply ignore it. A good way then to potentially improve the numbers who see a reason for voting, is to introduce a Civics course at school, or merge it with Legal Studies, a course I did at high school. Whilst this is not a sure fire way of addressing voter turnout, it will hopefully encourage conversations about the role of democratic practices such as voting in society.

A fourth, more controversial suggestion is that New Zealand makes voting compulsory. Whilst one of the merits would be a much higher turnout, it also undermines to some extent freedom of choice. And would a box for “no confidence” be added to ballot papers for those that seriously have no confidence? I doubt it.

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