A variety of radical reforms and technocratic tweaks are being proposed for fixing the problem of low voter turnout. But which of these changes are worth voting for?
How would you feel about being compelled to vote? Or getting paid to vote? Or voting on your phone? Lots of supposed solutions are being bandied around in response to this year’s low voter turnout – which currently stands at 41.8 per cent. But would any of these proposals really make a difference? And does it really matter anyhow?
Most of these relate to local government. But of course, declining participation in electoral politics is occurring throughout the world at the moment and at all levels of government. Therefore, it’s important to remember that although low voter turnout is particularly severe in New Zealand local government elections, it’s a problem everywhere and is not easily fixed. And quite rightly the most common statement of fact is about the lack of any “silver bullet” to remedy the situation. Nonetheless it’s worth looking at some of the voting options:
Voting fix number 1: Compulsory voting
The Labour Party has put forward this controversial fix, suggesting that New Zealand could emulate Australia’s system of fining those who don’t vote – see Sam Sachdeva’s Labour says online voting, compulsory voting among options for low voter turnout.
The reaction has been negative from both left and right. For instance, see No Right Turn’s blog post: Just f*** off, Labour. He argues Labour needs to provide a strong reason for people to vote, rather than try to coerce: “this is Labour's perennial ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ that its core constituency doesn't turn out for them. But refusing to vote is a choice, and a valid one. People vote when they have something to vote for. It speaks volumes that Labour would rather try and force them to the ballotbox on pain of a fine than give them hope that a Labour government or Labour local body politicians could make a meaningful difference to their lives.”
On the right, Liam Hehir wrote earlier on the subject – see: Compulsory voting: should you be made to care? He argues philosophically against compulsion, but also points out that often those political parties who advocate “involuntary” voting are those who believe they will benefit from it more than their opponents.
In this regard it’s worth remembering that last year the Labour Party courted controversy with its proposal to penalise low-income people who don’t enroll to vote, officially submitting: "The possibility of making enrolment to vote a pre-condition to receipt of various forms of state support (eg Working For Families, tax credits) should be examined” – see Nicholas Jones’s Labour penalties target non-voters. Previously Labour has also proposed introducing state funding of candidates in local government to pay for their election advertising.
Voting fix number 2: Payment for voting
While some propose punishments for non-voting – especially fines – an alternative approach that is more carrot than stick, would be to provide some sort of financial incentive for participation. I mention this possibility in an article by Simon Maude – see: Paying voters one solution to New Zealand's election apathy.
Maude’s article also canvasses University of Auckland political scientist Jennifer Curtin on compulsory voting – which she supports. Other options discussed in the article include changes to the local government rates system, better civics education, and the possibility of “recall” provisions in which those elected could be sacked by the public.
For some previous arguments in favour of payments, see Carrie Stoddart-Smith’s blog post, What about a voter credit?
Voting fix number 3: Online voting
This appears to be the most popular solution for declining turnout, and is advocated by a wide variety of people. For instance David Farrar argued last week that Postal voting is a dying medium. He disagrees strongly with the Government’s decision earlier this year to abandon its proposed limited trial of online voting for the local elections.
Plenty of others agree that the time is now right for this technology – see, for example, Cherie Howie’s Another poor local body election voter turnout – Is it time to bring in online voting? In this, Local Government New Zealand’s chief executive Malcolm Alexander is quoted: "We've got to ask ourselves, is postal voting fit for purpose? There's no silver bullet, but we are going to look at online voting quite hard ... it's the way of the future, particularly in engaging youth.”
Today’s Hawke’s Bay Today editorial also gives a vote of confidence to online voting, but argues for the need for a dual system: “I am not saying that we must throw out the old system - keep that as an option, but simply make it possible for people to go online for a few minutes and fullfill their democratic obligations.
I am certain it would be appealing to many people if they could do that. Look how online banking has revolutionalised our lives. For those who want to transfer money between accounts or pay bills at midnight, they are able to do so in the comfort of their homes. Those that still like to go out and physically do their transactions at the bank are still able to, but the point is about giving people options” – see: Surely online voting should be an option.
There could well be some benefits from the use of online technology. And previously when he was mayor of Auckland, Len Brown estimated that online voting would lead to a doubling of voter turnout.
But I’ve gone on record suggesting that the time isn’t yet right for online voting, and that there are bigger problems than postal voting – see TVNZ’s Is it time for us to vote online? Not everyone convinced 'e-voting' will work.
And for a very strong opposition to the proposal, see Lyn Prentice’s blog post on The Standard: Online voting – the only choice for idiots.
But the must-read discussion of online voting is Julienne Molineaux’s No silver bullet: Online voting and local elections. The AUT academic’s main point against online voting is the issue of security: “New solutions create new problems. In the case of online voting, the most intractable problem relates to the security of the system. If the voting system is not secure, the whole process risks losing public confidence, creating a downwards spiral of even more disengagement and non-voting.”
She points to problems with “the inability to guarantee both anonymity and verifiability” with online methods – basically meaning that we can’t be sure that vote counting will be correct, and we can’t be sure that individual voting choices will be kept anonymous.
Molineaux’s highly-informative article is not simply concerned with the pros and cons of online voting systems, but with the wider issues of solving the problem of declining turnout. She says “Solving low turnout is more complex than just making the mechanics of voting easier.” This authoritative piece also deals with the issues of inequalities of voting – i.e. which groups in society are disenfranchised.
Some useful points are also made by Mike Yardley in his column, New Zealand's system for electing councils is broken. For example, he points to overseas experience: “Just look at the fiasco that fast torpedoed Australia's "revolutionary" online census, in August. Estonia is the only country I know of that's gone big with online voting, but it's underpinned by strong security protocols whereby individuals use their National ID Card to log in – a compulsory form of identification anathema to Kiwis. Until our government is satisfied that e-voting can be delivered in a secure fashion, unmolested by miscreants, it should remain parked up.”
Today the Otago Daily Times looks at Low voter turnout in its editorial, and it also sees online voting as inevitable, but warns against online voting being seen as the answer: “When postal voting was first introduced, it was supposed to raise voting rates by making the process easier. But any effect was temporary, and it is unlikely online voting would make a significant difference beyond the margins.”
The editorial also questions whether a declining or low turnout is necessarily a problem: “If matters are moving along without too many problems, those most interested in the issues, the personalities and the process can cast their votes and help ensure worthy candidates come through. They are, in a sense, proxy voting for the wider majority. When matters become acute, when it is really important, a larger reservoir can come out in force. Thus, local politicians remain accountable for their performance, even with low turnouts. Despite the disappointment, turnouts are still large enough for local democracy to function reasonably. Although an ever-increasing lack of interest in local government is apparent, that need not signal a rejection of local politics. If big issues affect communities they can still be mobilised and exert pressure.”
Voting fix number 4: Civics education and information
There is no doubt that there is a need for greater – or improved – information about both the role of local government, voting process and the candidate options in elections. This is fuelling greater demand for the introduction of some form of civics education in secondary schools. For example, Richard Handley, the former chief executive of Taranaki's polytech who ran for the New Plymouth mayoralty, has called for “democracy classes for high school students” – see Taryn Utiger’s Mayoral candidate calls for classrooms to teach importance of democracy in light of low turnout.
Generally, we all need better information about the candidates according to Lincoln University lecturer Jean Drager, who is reported saying that “It is quite difficult for people to find out enough to encourage them to vote… At the moment they get voting forms with a little booklet with a little piece about each candidate. If you're not connected to your community or haven't accessed other information, it's quite bewildering” – see Michael Cropp’s Clock ticking on lifting voter turnout.
Young people in particular are seen to have little knowledge of political institutions or the people involved. David Burroughs randomly tested teenagers and “All seven instantly recognised a photo of John Key but came up short when asked to name someone on the local council” – see: Teenagers know John Key, but do they know who's on the New Plymouth council?
Voting fix number 5: Political parties in local elections
New Zealand has a tradition of only very low level political party involvement in local government. There has always been a suspicion about the interference of national-level bodies in community-level forms of politics, and hence there’s been a strong culture of so-called “independent” candidates standing. But has this served local government and elections well?
Stacey Kirk suggests otherwise: “It's time for a complete overhaul of how local body elections are run, and online voting won't fix everything. It might be a small tweak, but lets start with candidates running as "independents". Often they're not. They have political ideologies like any aspiring politician - they just don't declare them. It's not right they can hide a wider political agenda, but running on formal party-political position may actually increase turnout. New Zealanders get the major parties, they understand what side they're coming from. With the added benefit of the vetting processes parties would put candidates through (albeit not foolproof), the quality may also be lifted” – see: Meet your new council - is it up to the job? Who knows.
I’m also an advocate of this option, and my views are expressed today in Simon Maude’s story, Paying voters one solution to New Zealand's election apathy. I’m quoted as saying “The drawbacks of getting parties involved are outweighed by having them involved, political parties despite their problems still have roots in local communities."
My advocacy of this is further reported yesterday in Jonathan Carson’s story, Why we didn't vote: How to fix voter turnout at local elections. It is reported: “He said involving political parties in the local election process might help to engage voters. Council candidates aligning with National, Labour, or the Greens, provided easy-to-understand ‘labels’ for voters.”
Similarly, Andrew Dickens says: “we need to get better candidates instead of the amateur hour we have already. We need party systems and primaries so we have fewer candidates of better quality. Having 19 candidates for the Auckland mayoralty including some bona fide nutters was just a joke” – see: Online voting would not change a thing, it's still voter laziness.
Voting fix number 6: None of the above
Perhaps none of the above options will fix the problem. There are a variety of other possibilities to consider, and this debate needs to be wide-ranging. For example, do the electoral systems need reforming? At the moment there is no uniformity of electoral systems for local government voting. Some authorities use First-Past-the-Post, others use STV (including all district health boards). And many voters still struggle with the STV system for DHBs, which was shown strongly in the Nelson Marlborough region this year – see Samatha Gee’s Community not engaged with Nelson Marlborough District Health Board vote. According to this report, “More than half of the voting papers returned for the Nelson Marlborough District Health Board member were not counted due to errors or left blank.”
Perhaps term limits need to be imposed on elected officials? Civic reporter Nicholas Boyack includes that idea in his list of possible reforms – see: The way elections are run needs a big shake-up to get young people involved.
For a more conspiratorial take on the problem, see Martyn Bradbury’s blog post, Who is to blame for low voter turn out and why online voting isn’t the solution. He says: “So let’s point out why the voter turn out is so low for the thousandth bloody time shall we? It’s built that way. We don’t want poor people voting, if they did, neoliberalism would never gain power again.” Bradbury also has an interesting list of proposals for voting reform, including lowering the age of eligibility to 16 years.
But perhaps the biggest possible reform is put forward by Geoffrey Palmer who is pushing for a new constitution: “The time has come to provide local government with a greater measure of autonomy. Local government in New Zealand could be more vibrant, effective and responsive to its communities on local issues if it were provided with a robust constitutional place upon which to stand and a more coherent and principled set of legal requirements under which to function” – see: For a boost in inspiration and participation, councils need greater independence.
Finally, for one of the more “entertaining” proposals for fixing voter turnout, see Andrew Rose’s Survivor: Candidate Island, a radical cure for voter apathy?
Simon Maude (Stuff): Paying voters one solution to New Zealand's election apathy
Lawrence Gullery (Stuff): Voter apathy stands as major challenge for new council
Hawke’s Bay Today: Editorial: Surely online voting should be an option
Amber-Leigh Woolf (Stuff): Invercargill touted most democratic city as voter turnout gets the tick
Victoria White (Stuff): $100,000 salary disparity across Hawke's Bay's elected officials
Andrew Austin (Hawke’s Bay Today): Editorial: Time to discuss the important issues
John Maslin (Wanganui Chronicle): Whanganui turnout the best but voters still lagging
No Right Turn: Just f*** off, Labour
Ruby MacAndrew (Stuff): Meet the new Wellington city councillors
Elton Rikihana Smallman (Stuff): Wait and see for Waikato Regional council candidate
Peter de Graaf (Northern Advocate): Just two Maori voted in across Northland's four councils
Jarred Williamson (Stuff): Majorities for Labour and Action Team on southern local boards
Brian Rudman (Herald): PM quick to deflate Goff's tyres
Hamish Coleman-Ross (Spinoff): Post-truth politics comes to Auckland: A candidate campaign manager on why he lost
Curwen Areas Rolinson (Daily Blog): Auckland Electoral Post-Mortem Part One: ‘Solids’ And ‘Biddables’
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Who will be Goff’s Deputy Mayor?
Bernard Orsman, Ben Hill, Cherie Howie (Herald): Air NZ bosses could rescue Auckland Council, says Phil Goff
Ian Apperley (NBR): Wellington has a technology savvy new mayor
Libby Wilson (Stuff): Hamilton's mayoral wait: downtime for top two while special votes counted
Elton Rikihana Smallman (Stuff): Wait and see for Waikato Regional council candidate
Matt Shand (Stuff): Rankin set to challenge on council
Simon Maude (Auckland Now): At the trough: Auckland Council spends $280,000-plus on catering
Jennifer Eder (Stuff): Secret recording culprit remains a mystery after Marlborough District Council investigation
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Biggest beneficiary of Council living wages is central Government
Matt Nippert (Herald): Court hears how council 'perks' kept quiet for fear of jealousy
Phil Goff’s departure from Parliament
Vernon Small (Stuff): It's a warm farewell for Phil Goff MP after 35 tough years in parliamentary politics
Claire Trevett (Herald): Phil Goff clocks out of Parliament speaking of first love and lessons learned
Barry Soper (Herald): Phil Goff facing his biggest challenge
Giovanni Tiso (Bat bean beam): Fail-proof
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): The Government's slow awakening on immigration
Danyl Mclauchlan (Dim Post): Election’s a comin’
Michael Reddell (Croaking Cassandra): A modest start
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): A small drop in residency approvals
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Like poverty, housing and living wage – National does barest minimum on new immigration cuts
Claire Trevett (Herald): Govt downplaying suggestions immigration changes aimed at Auckland housing squeeze
Jason Walls (NBR): Political points scoring on immigration? Woodhouse thinks not
Benedict Collins (RNZ): Migrants' parents cost NZ 'tens of millions'
Claire Trevett (Herald): Failure to pay way prompts halt for parents of migrants wanting to move to NZ
Stacey Kirk (Stuff): Rising demand for New Zealand residency sees Government turning down the tap
Lincoln Tan (Herald): Fewer migrants to be granted residency over the next two years
Maiki Sherman (Newshub): Migrant numbers 'exceeded' expectations
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): Concerns tighter NZ immigration controls could create 'critical' hospitality shortages
Michael Morrah (Newshub): Immigration fraudsters offer cash for fake jobs
Stacey Kirk (Stuff): 'Close UK borders to Europe, let New Zealand in' - nice try New Zealand
Nicholas McBride (Stuff): 'Unbelievable' growth in mental health demands will cause headaches for health system
Kim Fulton (Herald): Demand up for mental health care
Samatha Gee (Stuff): Population growth puts squeeze on cash-strapped GPs
Rachel Thomas (Stuff): Medical students' fears over understaffed clinics during doctor's strike
Karen Brown (RNZ): Bullying of junior doctors won't be tolerated – DHBs
John Braddock, Jeremy Lin (WSW): New Zealand doctors vote for nationwide strike
Andrew Gunn (Press): Simple answer for overworked doctors - free drugs
Rob Stock (Stuff): International anti-smoking campaigners' ten messages on e-cigarettes
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No Right Turn: We should not welcome a dictator
Patrick O’Meara (RNZ): Low staff hours widespread among retailers – union
Susan Edmunds (Stuff): New data shows New Zealanders earning more
No Right Turn: Going backwards
Claire Trevett (Herald): Call for action as gender pay gap rises back to 12 per cent
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Chris Trotter (Bowalley Road): Reducing Child Poverty Would Cost National Votes
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Hear no child poverty, see no child poverty, speak no child poverty
Eleanor Ainge Roy (Guardian): New Zealand child poverty a source of deep concern, says UN
Dr Ian Hyslop (Herald): New child protection laws a regressive move
Shamubeel Eaqub (Stuff): Poor by choice?
Rachel Thomas (Stuff): UN scorecard on Child Rights for NZ presents challenge to address child poverty
Morgan Foundation: How many homeless people are there in Aotearoa New Zealand?
Sam Sachdeva (Stuff): Government to build tens of thousands of Auckland houses for sale, Bill English says
Hannah Lee (Stuff): Bigger houses now could mean lack of appropriate housing into the future
Nicholas Jones (Herald): CYF acted unlawfully in detaining teenagers in secure care unit
Dan Satherley (Newshub): Serco insists there was no cover-up at Mt Eden prison
Isaac Davison (Herald): Earlier evidence of 'fight clubs' at Serco prison was buried – report
Edward Gay (RNZ): Is justice really blind in one of NZ's busiest courts?
Anusha Bradley (RNZ): UN backing for youth court age change
Susan St John (Daily Blog): A Faire suck of the sauce bottle!
Joanne Black (Listener): Dismayed Americans want to know how their democratic process could go so wrong
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Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Is Trump another BREXIT?
Patrick Gower (Newshub): Donald Trump on 'Māoris', haka, hangi and hongi
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Jeremy Elwood, Michelle A'Court (Stuff): Hobson's Pledge
Scott Hamilton (Reading the maps): William Massey and the apocalypse
Richard Harman (Politik): Bennett's big climate change plans
Geoff Simmons (Morgan Foundation): Cheats Never Prosper
Pattrick Smellie (BusinessDesk): Government considering more incentives to encourage forest planting
Patrick Smellie (BusinessDesk): Key signals cabinet reshuffle in New Year
Lloyd Burr (Newshub): Prime Minister indicates a ministerial reshuffle
Nona Pelletier (RNZ): Too few rest homes for NZ's aging population – report
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Mt Roskill by-election 3 December 2016
Rebecca Macfie (Listener): Does New Zealand need a new constitution?
Leonid Sirota (Pundit): Why do the write thing?
Dita DeBoni (TVNZ): We laugh at Donald Trump, but what about our own lot?
Richard Harman (Politik): Germany suggests we take more refugees
David Cohen (NBR): Craig trips in Lange footsteps (paywalled)
Rob Hosking (NBR): English to unveil second surplus this week on back of boom
Bernard Hickey (NBR): How to rescue globalisation (paywalled)
Sophie Boot (BusinessDesk): Ngatata Love jailed for two years six months
Giselle Byrnes (NBR): Public good loses out to personal benefits in valuing universities (paywalled)
Claire Trevett (Herald): Tamati Coffey to stand in Waiariki for Labour as Maori Party courts Sir Mark Solomon
Nureddin Abdurahman, Malcolm McKinnon (Incline): That was then, this is now: calling New Zealand’s Africa diplomacy to account
Brennan McDonald: A Median Voter Refresher
Michael Coote (NBR): Tribes seek higher ground (paywalled)
Sam Sachdeva (Stuff): Bill English: No need to 'shovel money out' to stimulate New Zealand economy
Sophie Boot (Herald): Merged Fairfax/NZME should have to sell a website, says MediaWorks
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): MediaWorks sees other possibilities if Fairfax-NZME merger rejected
Audrey Young (Herald): Helen Clark respected but loved by too few
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Aaron Leaman (Stuff) Women in Politics opens up membership to men
Fran O'Sullivan (Herald): Spread the word - trade is good
Chris Trotter (Daily Blog): The Masculine Mystique: The True Nature Of Aaron Smith’s Transgression
Kerre McIvor: Forget GCSB, public are the spies
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