This is the fifth in an open-ended series of posts about the politics and economics of zoning reform. The idea animating the series is that decisions made by local governments, in urban planning and transport planning alike, respond to the local political context. Consequently, the last few posts have focused on the factors shaping consultation participation and voter turnout. This post concludes the discussion of voter turnout.
By the way, tomorrow is the last day to post your local election ballot if you want to be certain that it will be counted. Polls close on 8 October – all ballots must be received by then. Go and vote!
In last week’s post, I looked at some possible explanations for variations in voter turnout between different councils in New Zealand. It was a somewhat unedifying exercise. Some of the things that I thought would matter – population size, the age of residents, and type of council – did matter. Other things didn’t seem to pay as strong a role as expected.
Even taking all that into account, findings from a simple quantitative analysis don’t provide us with any obvious insights about how to raise voter turnout in Waikato District (31.6% in 2013) to Mackenzie District levels (63.7%). So this week, I’m going to take a closer look at some potential barriers facing individual voters (or non-voters).
A fundamental fact here is that young people are disproportionately disengaged from local body politics. Here’s a chart:
The other week, a good Radio New Zealand story explored some of the reasons for this disengagement:
A recent Auckland University-led mayoral debate drew a crowd of just 40 students, a reflection of the low turnout of younger voters in local elections.
At the debate, some came to listen, some just to eat lunch but all of the students RNZ spoke to said local body elections were inaccessible.
They said it wasn’t apathy which was the problem, it was poor political process.
Many students expressed their frustration at the lack of centralised information about the candidates and their policies.
One student said she came out of high school without any knowledge of political process.
“I don’t really have a clue about how to vote or why I should vote, for who, and which policies benefit who.”
Other interviewees identified problems like young people moving flats more often, which means that ballot papers often don’t reach the right address, and the perception that the candidates are all male, pale, and stale.
But let’s leave those aside for a moment and carefully examine the statement in bold above. Are people not voting in local elections due to a lack of information about candidates and policies?
Data from post-election surveys provides an indication of the magnitude and impact of “information problems” in local and general elections. After every general election, the Electoral Commission runs a Voter and Non-Voter Satisfaction Survey to find out what worked and what didn’t – here’s the 2014 edition. While we don’t have similar data for local elections, Local Government New Zealand undertook a similar survey of seven councils (including Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch) after the 2004 election.
This data suggests that information problems play a much larger role as a barrier to voting in local elections:
- The 2014 Electoral Commission survey found that the most common reason for not voting in the general election was “self-stated personal barriers”, such as work commitments that prevented people from getting to the polling booth. 34% of non-voters reported this as a barrier. Only 11% of non-voters cited “not knowing who to vote for” as a barrier.
- The 2004 LGNZ survey found that the most common reason for not voting in local elections was that people “didn’t know enough about the candidates / not enough information”. 29% of non-voters reported this as a barrier.
In other words, a lack of information about candidates is a much greater problem for local elections than general elections. Taking into account differences in voter turnout rates, information problems appear to have stopped only 2-3% of voters from participating in general elections. However, they stopped a whopping 16-17% of voters from participating in local elections.
Here’s the data in a chart:
Another way of explaining this data is that if people were as well-informed about local elections as they are about general elections, voter turnout would be 10 percentage points higher. That’s a lot of additional people turning up at the polls.
So why aren’t people more well informed about local elections? As a voter myself, here are a few things I’ve noticed:
- Unlike at central government level, candidates for office are not typically aligned with political parties, meaning that it’s harder to know how they will vote on major policy issues. Out of Auckland’s existing 20 councillors and mayor, eight are independents, five are members of their own one-person party, two are Labour members, and three are members of the National-aligned Communities and Residents.
- Even if more candidates aligned themselves with parties, it may not matter very much. Good urban policies don’t always map clearly onto left-right divides, and councillors tend to take a more “transactional” approach to voting, rather than always voting with their party.
- Media attention, such as it is, focuses more on the mayoral race than on races for ward councillor positions. This makes a certain amount of sense, as the mayor must be elected by the entire city, but he or she only has one vote on the governing body – same as every other councillor.
- Candidate statements are often confusing nonsense. They often promise mutually incompatible things, like cutting rates *and* spending more on roads. Hard to assess them without further information.
In this context, you have to assess candidates based on their reputation and track record. People who’ve lived in a place for longer have an easier time doing this, as they are more likely to know candidates from public meetings, community participation, or work, or at any rate know people who know them. In other words, access to reasonably good information on candidates isn’t evenly distributed – it tilts against young people and recent arrivals.
Youth climate activist group Generation Zero has done some good work to fill the information void. In the 2013 and 2016 local government elections, they’ve systematically interviewed candidates, assessed them against their priorities, and published the results in an accessible format. (NB: Gen Zero’s ratings reflect how well candidates aligned with their goals and values. If you value different things, you may come to different conclusions.)
This is a really useful initiative. With luck, it will continue, gain prominence, and inspire imitators and competitors. However, Gen Zero’s efforts alone can’t fill the information void. Broader changes to the way we run and report on local elections are needed to make them relevant and accessible to more people.
What do you think of the data on barriers to voting?