Local governments have a responsibility to represent the interests and desires of their constituents. That idea is written into the oath that elected representatives swear when taking their seats:
I, [full name of mayor, councillor or board member], declare that I will faithfully and impartially, and according to the best of my skill and judgment, execute and perform, in the best interests of [name of region, district, city, local or community board], the powers, authorities, and duties vested in or imposed upon me as a member of the [name of local authority] by virtue of the Local Government Act 2002, the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987, or any other Act.
For representative democracy to work, politicians must be willing to think beyond narrow parochial interests and act in the interests of the broader community. But unfortunately, elections don’t necessarily reward politicians that take this view.
The following chart from Local Government New Zealand illustrates a key challenge for democracy at the local government level. Voter turnout in local elections has steadily declined over the past two and a half decades. In 2013, only 40% of registered voters participated. This means that local body politicians have an incentive to respond to the needs and desires of a smaller and smaller share of the population:
In a January press release on LGNZ’s plans to raise voter turnout, their president stated that change was urgently needed:
“Our goal is that, for the first time in nearly two decades, local government will be elected by a majority of New Zealanders,” said Mr Yule.
That’s a worthy mission. But another way of interpreting the data is that, for the last two decades, local governments have had extraordinarily weak democratic mandates. The people that are elected to councils generally aren’t voted in by a majority of citizens. In fact, most people chose not to vote for any of the candidates.
A weak democratic mandate is exacerbated by uneven rates of voting and civic participation. Last year, I took a look at the demographics of the people who submitted on Auckland Council’s Long Term Plan. I found that many groups were severely underrepresented among submitters, especially:
- Maori, Pasifika and Asian people – underrepresented by 62%, 81%, and 73%, respectively
- People aged under 25 – underrepresented by 70% or more.
Astonishingly, the picture gets worse when we look at who votes in local elections.
The following chart compares voter turnout rates in national and local elections by age category, using data sourced from the Electoral Commission and LGNZ. (Unfortunately, LGNZ hasn’t published any more recent data, but turnout has undoubtedly fallen further since 2001.)
Older people – i.e. those over 50 – turn out at roughly the same rate in both local and national elections. Younger people generally vote at lower rates than older ones in national elections. But participation among younger people – especially those under 30 – falls off much, much more severely in local elections.
This chart shows two important things.
The first is that local governments do not represent the young, except occasionally by accident or in a mood of generosity. Why should they? Young people might be the future, but they don’t turn out to vote. In that context, local governments will generally be captured by the interests of older residents. (Many of whom vote primarily to preserve their property values against nuisances like affordable housing.)
If you believe in democracy, as I do, this seems like a serious problem. It’s important that people are heard at election time, and afterwards.
The second is that there are high barriers to youth participation in local government elections. How else do you explain the wildly divergent participation rates at national and local government elections?
The LGNZ paper I referred to earlier has a more comprehensive run-down of various potential causes of falling voter turnout, but it’s worth mentioning a few possible hypotheses that might disproportionately affect the young:
- Local government elections are exclusively conducted by postal ballots, which poses a barrier for renters. As young people are much more likely to rent, and renters are more likely to move frequently, the ballots are more likely to be posted to the wrong address. Consequently, there may be a case to set up a few voting booths in places where they can be accessed by young people.
- It’s difficult to get good information about candidates. As political party affiliation is less common (and less relevant for policy anyway) at a council level, it’s harder to assess where candidates stand on the issues. The media tends to focus on high-profile races like mayoral elections, while paying less attention to councillors and local board candidates. This barrier may be higher for younger people, who won’t have had as many opportunities to get to know candidates in person or by reputation.
I also want to raise one dark possibility that LGNZ does not mention: that youth participation in local democracy is low because it is neither welcomed nor encouraged. In other words, young people may not be heard respectfully at town hall meetings or in residents associations, leading them to get turned off from engaging.
Back in February, Bernard Hickey reported on what happened when youth representatives spoke at a Council meeting on potential changes to the city’s Unitary Plan, which was then being reviewed by an Independent Hearings Panel:
I watched this democratic deficit exposed most cruelly when the Council’s Youth Advisory Chair, Flora Apulu, spoke to the Council about how she felt the weight of the city’s half a million young people on her shoulders as she argued for the affordable housing they desperately needed from this “up-zoned” plan.
She was jeered and heckled by the dozens of elderly and predominantly Pakeha homeowners sitting just metres behind her.
Sudhvir Singh from Generation Zero was jeered even more loudly when he said the generation of home-owners sitting behind him were “pulling up the ladder” of home ownership on the young of today.
“Poor you”, was the response. Indeed. Poor us.
Ms Apulu and Mr Singh seem like they can stand up to a bit of heckling without being intimidated into silence, but the same can’t be said for everyone. If a similarly dismissive atmosphere prevails at other meetings, should we be surprised when few young people take an interest in local elections? As this chart from LGNZ shows, low youth voting rates coincide with a dearth of young candidates:
To sum up, local governments seem to face challenges for democratic legitimacy. Voter turnout is anemic, and it’s unusually low among the young. This weakens councils’ democratic mandates and weakens their ability to understand and respond appropriately to their constituents’ needs and desires.
So what can be done to save local democracy?
The most important thing that people can do is to get out and vote in the 2016 local government elections. Voting is especially important if you’re young – council decisions will affect whether you can afford to rent or buy a home in the place you’d like to live.
Here are the key dates to keep an eye on. Unfortunately, the enrollment deadline closed last Friday, but if you didn’t enroll in time there’s still an opportunity to request and cast a special ballot.
But it’s not a matter for individuals. Governments need to lower the barriers that people face to voting in local elections and participating in consultation processes. The low rate of youth participation is not a trivial issue – in some respects, it sits at the heart of Auckland’s housing affordability challenge.
Young people bear the costs of policies that restrict housing supply in areas that are accessible to jobs and amenities. Empowering them in local body politics would create a constituency for change – not one that would sweep aside all other views, but one that would at least have a seat at the table.
What do you think could be improved in local elections?