This is the fourth installment in an ongoing series on the politics and economics of zoning reform. In the previous post, I took a look at the demographic factors underpinning variations in submission rates on the Auckland Unitary Plan between different parts of the city. That analysis showed that age and income matter quite a lot – variations in median personal incomes and the share of residents over the age of 65 explain a large share of the variation in submission rates from local boards.

In a representative democracy, voting matters. On the whole, politicians tend to respond to the interests and desires of the people who they represent. But there’s a caveat: If you don’t vote, they don’t have a good reason to listen to you.

This is important, because elected representatives get to decide how to address a lot of important issues. For instance, local governments’ choices affect:

  • The availability, location, design, and price of housing – zoning rules can either facilitate or thwart peoples’ desires for a place to live
  • The qualities and locations of the places where we work, shop, and play
  • How we get around – local governments make decisions about investments in streets, public transport, walking, and cycling
  • The quality of our local environment – air, water, and soil quality is regulated by local government.

Unfortunately, as I found when I looked at data on voter turnout in local government elections, people are increasingly disengaged from local elections. Across New Zealand, turnout appears to be structurally declining:

LGNZ local government voter turnout chart

Why is this happening?

A useful starting place is to ask what we know about the reasons why voter turnout varies between different places. According to statistics published by the Department of Internal Affairs, in 2013 people were much more likely to vote in some local elections than others:

  • Mackenzie District had the highest voter turnout – 63.7% of registered voters – followed by Buller District (62.4%) and Wairoa District (62.0%)
  • Waikato District had the lowest voter turnout (31.6%) followed by Auckland Council (34.9%) and Waimakariri District (35.0%).

Why do outcomes vary so widely? As I did in my analysis of Unitary Plan submission rates, I’m going to use OLS regression to investigate a set of potential explanations. OLS regression is a statistical technique for investigating relationships between multiple explanatory variables and a single outcome variable – voter turnout in this case. Here are the hypotheses I want to test:

  • H1: Size matters. Councils serving larger populations are less likely to be as engaged with the community.
  • H2: Council functions matter. Regional councils and district councils serve different functions, which might be more or less ‘salient’ to voters. Regional councils are responsible for regulating environmental outcomes while district councils regulate land uses and provide roads.
  • H3: Voting systems matter. Six councils use single transferrable vote (STV) rather than first-past-the-post (FPP) as a voting system. STV is a bit more complicated to understand, but it allows people to vote their conscience when choosing between multiple candidates and hence may result in more competitive, relevant races.
  • H4: Competitiveness matters. Elections that are more closely contested are more likely to draw higher turnout. I’ve used candidates standing per open position as a proxy measure for competitiveness, although as the Auckland mayoral race shows, that’s not necessarily always true.
  • H5: Age matters. As older people are more likely to turn out to vote, we would expect local governments with higher median ages to have higher voter turnout.
  • H6: Home ownership matters. If home ownership is positively correlated with democratic engagement, we’d expect areas with higher home ownership rates to have higher voter participation.

The key findings are reported in the following table. For the non-statisticians in the audience, here’s what this quick analysis says about the hypotheses above:

  • It provides support for H1 and H2 – larger councils tend to have lower turnout, while regional councils and unitary councils tend to have higher turnout than district councils.
  • It also provides support for H5 – councils with higher median age tend to have higher turnout.
  • It does not provide support for the other hypotheses. In 2013, at any rate, councils that used STV, had more candidates per open council position, and had a higher share of renting households did not have statistically significant differences in voter turnout.

[Technical note: I found that there was low multicollinearity between these variables, meaning that you couldn’t predict the majority of variation in, say, home ownership rates as a function of the other variables in the model. This suggests that there is low risk of understating the impact of any individual variable.]

Dependent variable:log(2013 voter turnout)
Explanatory variablesCoefficient
log(Resident population)-0.082***
(0.018)
Regional Council (1)0.111**
(0.05)
Unitary Council (1)0.107*
(0.055)
STV voting system (2)0.022
(0.051)
log(Candidates per position)0.091
(0.055)
log(Median age)0.640***
(0.221)
log(Share of households renting)0.171
(0.115)
Constant-2.169**
(0.841)
Model statistics
Observations75
Adjusted R20.414
Residual Std. Error0.112 (df = 67)
F Statistic8.476*** (df = 7; 67)
Notes:*p<0.1; **p<0.05; ***p<0.01
(1) Relative to District Council
(2) Relative to FPP

In short, when we’re looking at determinants of voter turnout in local government elections, size matters, council type matters, and age matters. But there are two important caveats to this analysis:

  • First, this model wasn’t very good at explaining variations in voter turnout. The adjusted R2 statistic of 0.414 indicates that this model only explains 41.4% of the total variation in voter turnout between different councils. In other words, the majority of variation is due to other, unobserved factors.
  • Second, this is a “cross-sectional” model that tries to predict variations between places at a point in time. It can’t tell us much about how voter turnout might change if we adopted different policies. For instance, we can’t conclude, on the basis of this model, that we should reduce council size in order to raise turnout.

To illustrate the second point, let’s take a look at how voter turnout has changed in Auckland over the last three elections. In 2010, Auckland Council was amalgamated from eight predecessor councils. In effect, it got a lot larger. So did this reduce voter turnout?

The DIA voter turnout data doesn’t seem to support that story, at least not in such a simplistic form. Here’s a chart comparing local election turnout in Auckland with voter turnout in the rest of New Zealand from 2007 to 2013. As this shows, voter turnout in Auckland wasn’t that flash prior to amalgamation – in all predecessor councils except Rodney, it substantially lagged behind turnout in the rest of New Zealand.

auckland-and-rest-of-nz-voter-turnout-chart

Turnout rose significantly after amalgamation in 2010 before falling back again. This probably had more to do with the dynamics of those elections than the nature of the new council. In 2010, Aucklanders were more aware of the elections, which featured a competitive race for mayor. The mayoral candidates – Len Brown and John Banks – were both well-known local body politicians with genuinely different visions for the city.

In 2013, those factors probably weren’t as salient. The mayoral race was less competitive, and the new council had gotten on with doing all the million soporific tasks of local government.

So what does all this data and analysis mean, anyway? What should we do differently to get higher turnout?

I would draw two key conclusions:

  • First, demographics matter to voter participation. Different groups vote at different rates, and councils with older populations tend to have higher turnout. This suggests that any attempts to address low voter turnout have to address barriers faced by different types of people.
  • Second, there aren’t any obvious structural fixes related to council size, structure, or the like. Most variation in turnout between councils isn’t explained by the factors I’ve measured here, and the evidence for reducing council sizes as a way of raising turnout doesn’t seem too robust. (See the discussion of changes in voter turnout after the late-1980s amalgamations on page 22 of this document.)

In short, if we want a durable solution to low turnout rates, we need to look at some other, harder-to-measure factors, like the information available to people about local elections. But that’s a topic for the next installment.

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42 comments

  1. All the numbers above aside, the reason there are less voters is quite simple, people don’t understand, they are too busy and they don’t care. I have had a number of younger people look to throw their papers in the bin. I asked them why, and they say ‘its not for them, they don’t understand, and it wont make any difference”. I have had a success rate of approx. half of them reconsider and have a think, whether that equates to papers being actually filled in and posted who knows. The point I would like to make is that schools should be teaching students about democracy, voting, impacts, outcomes, etc. If it starts in the schools we might get a better turnout. Also this time round the sheer number of candidates plus the press continually saying Goff will win hasn’t encouraged many to do anything at all.

  2. One person doesn’t make a difference, but if we all think that it makes a huge difference. My unopened envelope is still sitting there on my desk. I keep planning to get around to it, but I don’t think I will. Goff will win and labour candidates always win in my area, the local board is next to useless(both the people and the function) so there isn’t much point to vote.

    The lesson is not the voting for the sake of voting and ticking boxes at random, the lesson is understanding our democratic system and critically evaluating for yourself who is best to represent you. I think you are better off getting a small active group of people and name yourself “XXX Residents Association” and lobby the councilor daily to do what you want. Eventually they will get so sick of you they will answer your request.

    1. Quote: “I think you are better off getting a small active group of people and name yourself “XXX Residents Association” and lobby the councilor daily to do what you want. Eventually they will get so sick of you they will answer your request.”

      Isn’t that a terrible way to make decisions? I mean I know that’s how it works in practice a lot of the time, but doesn’t it result in sub-optimal decisions for the community? Those who have the resources to (money, time, education, cultural capital) get a bigger say. Being an optimist here, but at least with voting everyone’s vote counts equally.

      I’d vote for someone who ran under a campaign of “I won’t make decisions based on anecdotes”. 😉

  3. If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain. So if our country voted in favour of having a fascist dictatorship that imposed Marxist style communism or huge restrictions on free choice or civil rights – would that change your position? The same principle applies to local government.

    Voting is about having your democratic voice be heard. One vote does count, 100,000 would-be votes makes an even bigger difference.

    1. I don’t quite agree with you there, I think if you don’t vote you still have every right to complain. One vote does not make a difference. Sure if you can rally together 100,000 people that wouldn’t vote, to get them to vote, then sure you’ve made a difference.
      People at the bottom of the social / economic ladder are never heard or represented as to do so would require radical changes to government structures, which is just not going to happen.
      Sorry that post was a little negative, however I believe it’s true.

      1. Voting doesn’t make much of a difference, but it certainly makes more of a difference than *not* voting.

        That being said, I agree with you that the onus is on governments, not individuals, to go out and get a proper understanding of people’s needs and preferences. As you say, any such effort should focus most on areas that are most disengaged / disempowered.

    2. Tell me where it says complaining and voting are in anyway linked? I have been complaining for years despite not voting. I just give the form to Mrs mfwic and she chooses for me. Ask anyone, I complain a lot!

  4. I bet the majority of the younger generation have never posted a letter in their life.
    Thus not only the process of understanding and choosing who to vote for confusing and seems far away from people’s live – using a process that one has never used is also going to be a big problem.

    1. Posting a letter is also a bit of a hassle – for most generations, not just the young. People don’t have time like they used to. Its just the oldies that have nothing better to do.
      Why not have online voting? Just print a random username and password on each voting paper and let people log into a site to cast their vote. I can’t see how that is any less secure than what we already have.

    2. I have seen this hypothesis a few times before. The flag referendum however used postal voting and got more than 2/3rds turnout. So I don’t think the voting method is the problem. However there should be (or more widely advertised when/where there are) paper polling booths

    3. I tend to agree. This results in there being more post boxes in places older people live. For the flag referendum I made the mistake of taking our votes into the CBD thinking I would post them before a meeting. Big mistake. Eventually after walking all over the place I found a post box in Wyndham Street outside a little post office. In contrast there is a post box at every little suburban centre.

  5. Voting is a privilege not your rights. Many people take voting for granted, however complains when that voting privilege is taken away from them.
    Everything regarding the political sphere is a privilege, not your rights.

    Privilege is something someone give you or loan you. It does not mean you own it; therefore privileges can be taken away from you if the person who gave them to you decided to take it back.

    Voting is a privilege. Democracy is a privilege. Protesting is a privilege. The government gives you this privileges, and the government can take them away.

    Anything that is present without a government is your Rights. Food, Water, Shelter are youre Rights because they can exist without the government. However, subsidised food, water in your tap, or structurally adequate housing/building are all Privileges because the government gives them to you, and they can take that away.

    So if you think Voting is your rights, you’re choice to vote or not and that you should just take them for granted, you might want to have another think on that.

      1. You shouldn’t take anything from the United Nations too seriously. It is just a cabal of the five winners of WWII who try to exercise moral authority over others without bothering to exercise it over themselves. It continues to exist mainly because the people who work there love the salaries (matched to the highest member state) and the good schools they can put their kids in.

      1. The United Nations is a system of privileges without individual rights. The United Nations’ “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” should be called the “Universal Declaration of Human Privileges.” Every “human right” is a privilege owned by the United Nations.

        Article 29 states, “These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.”

        Imagine our NZ Bill of Rights stating, “All Bill of Rights may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of government.” Our Bill of Rights would be a worthless “special privilege” with no protection from government.

        It’s simple to understand: We own our “individual rights,” such as our Bill of Rights. The government owns the “privilege” that the government provides, such as public welfare, public housing, public education, driving, etc. Nearly everything that the government subsidizes is a privilege that the government owns. Even the United Nation have an article which states that the ‘Human Rights’ is for the purpose of the UN, with not a universal purpose.

        1. Not sure what you’re on about here. If the UN had meant “privileges” it would have written that. As it is, the preamble (which supports the interpretation of the UDHR) contains phrases like “inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” and “fundamental human rights”, which do not imply that there is any limitation on the rights enumerated within.

          The “purposes and principles of the United Nations” are set out in the UN Charter. One of those purposes is “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. Which the UN does by, among other things, publishing and promoting the UDHR.

          1. Peter that is the same UN that gave their first Population Award to Indira Ghandi of India and Qian Xinzhong the family planning minister from China. They respectively brought in forced sterilisations and punishments for parents. The whole United Nations Fund for Population Activities was so discredited they changed their name and dont list their early award winners anymore. The UN cares about human rights? That would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

          2. Many listed as Human Rights are not rights but privileges, some are also subjective. If the government does not exist, those Human Rights would not exist. You cannot vote if are stranded in an island by yourself.

            Ask yourself can these ‘Human Rights’ exist if you were stranded in an island by yourself without any government overseeing things?

            Can a proper education system exist in this theoretical isolated island? Can a clean sanitised drinking water exist? Can access to the internet exist in this island? (According to UN access to internet is basic Human Rights).

            There is a different between Rights to Live and Privilege to Live in a modern country. Basic stuffs are Rights, advance stuffs are privileges.

            Rights is something we all inherently have since we were born. Privilege is something that was given to us, in particularly by the government.

            The United Nations Human Rights is nothing but a baseless guideline only for its organisation rather than an already existing natural rule. The UN Human Rights now not affect the rules of other countries. Its as I said, a mere guideline.

          3. @mfwic: The UDHR isn’t binding, but it has proven to be a tool for embarrassing governments that don’t abide by it and giving activists a lever for pushing for change. It certainly hasn’t stopped every abuse – it’s not binding on governments unless they enact and enforce bills of rights – but it has proven to be useful.

            @Alex B: There has been a long and rich philosophical debate about which rights are inherent, and which are not. The UDHR has emerged from this debate, and reflects the philosophical (and social) consensus about which rights are inherent.

            It is useful to draw a distinction between so-called “negative rights”, which constrain governments from imposing constraints on the personal freedom of individuals, and “positive rights”, which require governments to *provide or make available* goods and services that are important preconditions for the effective exercise of human capabilities.

            “Negative rights” mostly pertain to political freedom – rights to free speech and democratic participation, rights to a fair trial and protection from unjust imprisonment, etc. These are all things that humans will *naturally* do unless otherwise constrained from doing so. For instance, people will normally seek to express their views about things, unless an external agent (eg the government) prevents them from doing so. The case for “negative rights” is generally considered to be more straightforward than the case for “positive rights”, and it’s inaccurate to conflate them as you’ve done here.

          4. Peter the UN is kind of like the US Constitution. Neither was intended to deliver human rights but after a while people thought both should at least mention them somewhere so they did. The first 10 amendments at least seek to be more than window dressing. The UN on the other hand is specifically designed just to make it look like countries give a damn. The UN is just about large powerful countries legitimising how they treat smaller countries and wrapping their wars in a cloak of international law. It’s a sham.

          5. Every human institution and activity is imperfect in some way. Every lofty promise is breached at some point. You choose to use the flaws as a reason to reject the aspirations; I would prefer to focus on the aspirations and see what we can do to prod institutions into line. It just seems too cynical (not to say self-defeating) to say “governments have breached human rights, therefore let’s give up on the idea of human rights entirely.”

            As MLK said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

          6. I certainly wouldn’t give up. Most people are decent and democracy tends to select people who are good. But If we want human rights we start with ourselves and our own government not with some larger organisation built on nonsense and good salaries for a few. Same with that World Heritage crap. Listing something on that register doesn’t make it any better than it is.

      2. NZ Bill of Rights
        “the rights and freedoms contained in this Bill of Rights may be subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” Oh wait our Bill of Rights has a loop hole. Who would have thought.

    1. Sorry, but I think you have got this completely back to front. See GOVERNMENTS are at the privilege of the people. Ultimately, we the people can and do change governments, whether peacefully – using existing structures – or violently – through revolution! Some important and relevent examples to us here in NZ of the latter are the 1215 Magna Carta Libertatum, the 1642-1651 English Civil Wars, and the 1775 -1783 American Revolution.

      Disenfranchise and piss enough people off, governments tend to fall!

      1. And when one government falls, another government rises.

        Also I dont think you get my point, my point is that without a political system, no such thing as sanitised water in your tap, or the court system to judge you fairly. The government has got the power to take this away from the population. It is not youre rights to have these, but a privilege to have them.

        Just copy pasting from previous post:

        Ask yourself can these ‘Human Rights’ exist if you were stranded in an island by yourself without any government overseeing things?

        Can a proper education system exist in this theoretical isolated island? Can a clean sanitised drinking water exist? Can access to the internet exist in this island? (According to UN access to internet is basic Human Rights).

        There is a different between Rights to Live and Privilege to Live in a modern country. Basic stuffs are Rights, advance stuffs are privileges.

        Rights is something we all inherently have since we were born. Privilege is something that was given to us, in particularly by the government.

  6. Most people don’t see local government as either interesting or important. The turnout is probably inversely proportional to how pissed off people are with the incumbents. If that is the case a low turnout means the Council is probably doing quite well.

    1. That’s a potential reason for part of the unexplained variation in voter turnout rates between councils. Hard to quantify it, though.

      How would one reconcile the fact that most Aucklanders express dissatisfaction with Auckland Council with the fact that most Aucklanders also don’t vote?

      1. Maybe it is just baseline dissatisfaction that everybody feels towards their Council. You have to have a Kaipara debacle to get voters lining up to get rid of their Council.

        1. I agree with this, people are indifferent when things are typical, mediocre or even when they are quite good or excellent. While you get a few people moaning about few percent rates rises or “pants down Brown” BS, generally things have been stable and adequately effective.

          Nobody’s water got cut off, garbage didn’t pile up on the streets, roads didn’t get closed, and no rates bills doubled (despite the hubris), etc. It takes a serious fuck up to mobilise the people for a revolutionary vote.

          Now if I could just work out who is supposed to cut my berm….

    2. +1, as much as some people like to moan, the council is actually doing a pretty good job at the moment. Most people recognise that and want to leave them to do the job.

    3. The thing is, it isn’t any of the elected officials doing any of the work of council. They just attend a few meetings and vote on stuff they probably don’t even understand.

      And I agree. Really pissed off people will vote. Look at Brexit and look at the US. I suspect Trump will be president because so many non-voters are so pissed off at the government they would vote a crazy man to the Whitehouse just to say “up yours” to Washington DC.

  7. This conversation began with the question of slowly but steadily decline in voting. If there was one cause you did not list, I would finger the malign role of the media. Reportage of local government is generally superficial and misleading – only really paying attention when there is a dispute between elected members, or between members and their advisors, or with a lobby group or concerned locals. So the impression is gained that nobody can agree on anything which is the complete opposite of what actually happens – plenty of general agreement on most issues but a few points of disagreement to be worked through. Despite this, journalists and columnists keep telling their audience how boring local government is. And at election time they focus almost entirely on the Mayoral contest – ignoring the fact that he or she has only one vote among many (20 Councillors in the case of Auckland), albeit they are in a strong position to shape most debates. The other aspect that is ignored is that elections are only part of the process – there are many other opportunities to take part in the consultation preceding decisions on Annual & Long Term Plans (budgets), periodic review of bylaws, policies, etc.

    1. Yes, agreed. I’ve found the NZ media less and less helpful when it comes to assessing candidates for local elections. The NZ Herald in particular is failing hard as a local paper of record.

  8. I’ve asked some of the Year 13s at school about this. A tiny fraction of those eligible will vote. The main reasons for not voting are a lack of knowledge of the issues, and the candidates. From what I can gather this generation gets its news from Facebook and Instagram. If we can figure out how to crack that web, it would help.

  9. Waikato District has twice in a row been bottom for turnout. It doesn’t fit in with any of the findings according to http://www.stats.govt.nz/Census/2013-census/profile-and-summary-reports/quickstats-about-a-place.aspx?request_value=13654&tabname=Ageandsex&p=y&printall=true. In the time that turnout dropped from above average, it did have a mayor who the Waikato Times described as – perhaps the only mayor in New Zealand who was unable to use a computer, and was equally old-fashioned in terms of his guiding philosophies of “listening to the silent majority” and “saying nothing when you don’t have to say anything”. Only now is one mayoral candidate belatedly breaking the tradition of saying as little as possible about their policies. It’ll be interesting to see if that has any effect on turnout, or whether it will need more and longer to achieve that.

  10. I’d suggest voter participation was lower in the second post-amalgamation election in Auckland because the first election saw 62.5% of votes cast for Council electing no one at all.

    It’s First Past the Post: Probably one of the best ways to discourage voters and make them feel their vote is worthless….because for 62.5% of votes in 2010…..it was.

    The worst was Albany ward, were the two elected each got less than 10% of the vote…..and over 80% of all votes elected no one.

    North Shore was right up there, with the two who were elected getting 16% of the vote and just less, with a hair under 70% votes cast electing no one.

    If that doesn’t convince you your vote is worthless, you’re just not paying attention.

    Elections should have been by STV.

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