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:

National and local voter turnout 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:

information-problems-as-a-barrier-to-voting-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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)

You can see their 2016 candidate scorecards for Auckland here and for a number of other councils here.

gen-zero-2016-scorecard-mayor

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?

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38 comments

      1. I could have pointed out that maybe younger people don’t vote as they are less likely to own property and pay rates so they probably simply don’t care who gets in.

        1. Get over yourself. Home owners have no more right or interest in local government issues than anyone else. Issues like house availability and prices, transport, public facilities and infrastructure, even rates, affect everyone that lives here.

          1. The facts seem to suggest otherwise. Younger people are less likely to own property and younger people are less likely to vote. Maybe if Local Government is all upside to you and no downside you don’t bother voting.

          2. Do you seriously think there is no link between who Councillors can take money from and who chooses to vote? If you don’t see cause and effect there then what is the answer? Are younger people simply too lazy to tick a box?

          3. mfwic: You keep falling back on canards (“Are younger people simply too lazy to tick a box?”) rather than engaging with the evidence. This is lazy thinking on your part.

            The specific evidence presented in this post is:

            1. Young people are disproportionately less likely to vote in local elections than in general elections. This disproves the “young people are lazy” meme, because why aren’t they equally lazy in all elections?
            2. Non-voters are much more likely to report a lack of information as a barrier to voting in local elections than in general elections. This suggests that there are *specific* barriers to voting at the local level that don’t relate to the individuals involved.

            The perceived salience of local elections for different groups *may* be a possible explanation for lower turnout. However, this doesn’t seem to be strongly supported by the data. In the 2004 local election survey, only 18% of non-voters said they didn’t vote due to a lack of interest. By contrast, in the 2014 general election survey, 27% of non-voters said they didn’t vote due to a lack of interest.

            At the local level, people who lack enough information to vote their interests outnumber people who lack interest in voting. (The reverse is true for general elections.)

          4. I am not suggesting they are lazy Peter, I am suggesting that if Nick R can’t see a direct connection between paying a rates bill and caring to vote then all he is left with is laziness as his explanation. My point is if you are not sent a rates bill then why would you care who sits at the table? Lack of information is a nice way of saying “I couldn’t be bothered finding out”, it pushes responsibility from oneself onto others.

          5. It’s at least one step removed. Older people tend to own houses because it takes time to amass wealth. The older you are, the more likely you are to own your home, the younger you are, the less likely. That’s a clear causality. But based on that to go a step further to say home ownership is the reason why people vote is about as valid as saying grey hairs or a fondness for coronation street is the reason people vote.

            If you own a home, you’re also much more settled and sedentary which makes getting a vote pack in the post straightforward. I received three sets of postal votes from people who have lived in my house previously, clearly they aren’t going to where those people live now for whatever reason. You’re also likely to be settled in one area where you follow local politics and know the local candidates. My father has had the pleasure of George Wood looming over him for over a decade now and is motivated to vote against him every time. Myself, well I have no idea who any of my local candidates are because I only bought my house six months ago.

            My theory is it’s less about skin in the game risk by home owners, but more about how often you move and how settled you are. The barriers are a postal voting system where you have to update the government on your address, and a local government system based on local boards and local councillors, rather than a regional focus. Out of the seventeen billion things to vote for in my local pack (I get liqour liscencing and other guff) only the one tick for mayor is something that has any relevance outside the few kilometres around where I happen to live now. Young people move house every 13 months on average if I remember the figures correctly.

        2. just like those who didn’t submit on the unitary plan wanted others to decide for them, except now they are crowing about it as a problem

          1. But they didn;t need to submit if the liked what was notified. Also they knew that if the Council tried to pull a swift one and change it later then they could seek judicial review. The system seems to be working.

        3. It’s not one step removed at all. Every two months they send owners a rates demand and usually it also contains some propaganda about the Council and what a marvelous job they are doing spending your money. Owners have this ongoing love-hate relationship with the Council that tenants never form. When you pay them thousands out of your account you feel obligated to make sure competent people get in. Even if tenants pay something to rates it is behind a veil. They don’t see how much it costs and don’t experience the grumpiness that rates bills cause.

          1. I think in part it’s a generational thing. Lots of my parents friends love a good bitch about how their rates are wasted and how hopeless the council is. I don’t really see people my own age doing that (but maybe that’s symptomatic of being disengaged with local govt?)

            As a home owner myself, I think rates are incredibly cheap compared to what I get out of them (rubbish, parks, libraries, events etc).

    1. Should have gone Specsavers mate if you cant see the problem.

      Lets say you go shopping at a supermarket and you’re about to pay, but they are only accepting cheque payment. You, being in the 21st century (I hope) only carries plastic card or money. Will you be bothered to go to the bank, fill up some forms, apply for a cheque book, wait for many many days for it to arrive and go back to the supermarket and buy your grocery?

      If any shop offers only cheque, or only cash and not accept plastic cards. I’m pretty sure the shop will have low turn-out!

    2. I agree that not voting is ultimately a choice that we should always have. However, if the voting system and probably more importantly the enrollment system are weighted in favour of a particular demographic then that is a concern. I’m not in favour or electronic voting, but the enrollment system should be much easier to use for those who move more frequently.

      1. First it is against the law to not be enrolled, so difficulty getting enrolled is not an excuse for not voting. Second I accept that opening an envelope, reading a blurb about people, ticking a box and putting the form back in an envelop is a hurdle. But if anyone finds that too hard or can’t be bothered investing 5 minutes of their time then I say stuff them, that just don’t deserve to be heard.
        There is a simple reason older people are more likely to vote. It’s because they are more likely to own property and pay rates. These politicians can screw up our property values and levy any rates they choose to take of us. That makes selecting these people important to older people. And before you start with that crap about people paying rates through their rent, don’t bother. If rates ever impacted on rent adversely then tenants can move elsewhere. Owners are still liable until they sell (and get less due to high rates). If it were true that renters pay through their rent then there would be no opposition to a poll tax or to allowing landlords to make tenant pay rates as outgoings the way commercial tenants do.

        1. Where the burden of the rate ends up depends on the elasticity of demand with respect to price. If there’s excess supply (buyers’ market), landlords will end up carrying it. If there’s excess demand (sellers’ market), tenants will. Standard economic theory.

        2. When I pay my rent it comes with the expectation that some of that money is used to pay for me to be allowed to access services that are paid through rates, such as roads, public transport, parks, rubbish, libraries etc. How landlords chose to structure their financial affairs in not really my problem. If landlords are not covering their rates burden through their rental income then they are either not as smart as they claim to be, or they are banking on capital return, which of course they are perfectly entitled to. If you own a property where rent doesn’t cover expenses then sell it as it is probably over valued.

          I get the feeling it really pisses you off that renters like myself are even allowed to vote.

          1. Setting aside the arguments on whether a renter actually pays rates or not, and noting that there would be opposition to this on other grounds… but just for arguments sake – if there was a UK style ‘council tax’ payable by the occupant of the property (whether this is the owner-occupier or a tenant if the property is rented) which is intended to make the people who live in that particular local authority area pay for the services they are provided (rubbish, community services, asset maintenance etc), do you think it would increase the likelihood of voter turnout as they’d have ‘skin in the game’?

          2. I think it would, although I doubt it would bring levels up to anywhere near what they are for the general election. There is a lot of apathy in my generation, although ironically suggesting renters paying a portion of rates directly would probably on that topic alone increase interest through outrage!

            I think it is important to make the enrollment process as easy as possible, irrespective of the fact that it is illegal not to enroll. Ten years ago when I moved, they soon tracked me down through my NZ Post redirect and Car rego. Now I’m not sure how many young people would bother with an NZ Post redirect and many may not even own a car.

          3. James I think it would. In part because people value costs differently to benefits. Costs are certain and direct so a politician who wants to spend your money carries the burden of that in the ballot. Benefits of Local Govt are indirect and you might not actually get them yourself. The result is lots of people who directly pay rates will vote as the election has more meaning to them.

          4. I don’t know…. Anecdote alert, my partner is still really struggling to sum up the energy to vote even though we now own a house (not in Auckland). Firstly registration was a pain; secondly there is very little information on candidates, thirdly postal voting is much harder for us than at a polling place.

          5. Was interested in what others thought, as you could definitely argue that it would increase voter turnout…and yet.. (*personal experience anecdote*) having lived in the UK previously for over 10 years and own property there as well, I still never took much of an interest in local politics of the London Borough I was in..and yet here I have voted in these elections..do I care more now? I dunno? Maybe its because I’m older than I was then? Maybe I feel like my vote counts more here as there’s less people? I think it would help increase turnout by a few % points, but its not the single solution.

            I still found it pretty cumbersome to vote here though – the registration bit is a bit niggly, but doable. I made it one of my tasks when we moved into our new house. But wading through all of the candidate statements was a bit of task, especially given the quality of many of them…and then I got to the DHB part..I picked 3 random ones to read, they all seemed OK, so randomly ordered them from 1-3, but didn’t bother to rank the other 25 of them… I think voting electronically would have helped too – its not perfect, but if the RealMe system can be used for passport applications, surely its safe enough for identifying voters??

  1. As a young person who is on the move a lot, working out how to register to vote can be a difficult and tedious process. There are so many forms you have to send and receive from the electoral commission. Young people don’t often send letters in the mail in this day and age and the convenience of finding a post-box is getting harder with their removal from many streets. The system certainly favours those who are more likely to vote being those aged between 50-60 years. I would think that an electronic voting system would be a good way of doing this.

    On another note, Victoria University Students Association was active in getting students to vote by raising two major issues that are relevant to students – public transport and housing, and ran a campaign. http://studentfriendlywellington.nz/

  2. The local government voting system is very redundant and out of date. It needs to move along with the time. Soon majority of the younger generation will not have touched a single mail or would need to send a mail. The current system favours heavily on the non-technical savy generation. The last mail I received was the flag referendum. Apart form that, all my mail are communicated via electronically.

    Ditch or limit the postal voting system and introduce faster and easier electronic voting and/or polling stations for local elections.

  3. I take issue with labelling “lack of information” as a “barrier”. A “barrier” is something like polling place harassment (general elections), registration difficulties, discrimination. Lack of information is something that affects or compromises your decision, once you are able to make it it. In the end it’s incumbent on voters to do their own research, and not expect to be spoon fed soundbites so they can tick a few boxes with no thought given. Better researched decisions make for better democracy in other words.

    I also believe, as you allude to, that a lack of party politics at local government level is a GOOD thing. Quality and outcomes vs labels. I’d never dream of voting Green at national level (well,probably) but gave Green candidates 3 ticks this local government election. Urban technocracy transcends the traditional political spectrum.

    1. A lack of information *is* a barrier to efficient operation of economic markets or political processes. There’s an entire sub-genre of economics examining how a lack of good information can cause markets to break down: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_asymmetry

      Nobel laureate George Akerlof was one of the first to describe this process. He observed that sellers of used cars had an informational advantage over buyers – ie they knew whether the car was a ‘lemon’ or not. In the absence of mechanisms to reduce this asymmetry, such as vehicle testing or reputational damage to used car vendors, it would tend to destroy the market as buyers were systematically swindled and ‘good’ sellers driven out on price.

      I would argue that a local body election is a prime example of a market for lemons. A lack of good information on what candidates will do once in office means that the payoff to voting is very uncertain – you might inadvertently support someone who pursues policies you don’t agree with! But the alternative may not provide any greater certainty, which means that it’s hard to penalise candidates that you don’t agree with.

      Furthermore, it’s really hard to conduct your own research on what candidates will do. The media isn’t doing the job – they’re mainly focused on the mayoral race. There are few trusted intermediaries (eg political parties) putting forward candidates. Candidate brochures are helpful, but only to a degree, as people often promise mutually incompatible things (cut rates but sprawl more – yeah nah). Asking candidates directly may help, but most people don’t meet candidates. Relying on these mechanisms is a recipe for democracy failure.

      1. The candidate booklets can be fiction too. One of my local board candidates pledges to fix transport and improve safety for walkers and cyclists in the booklet, however this is the same person who has Facebook posts describing cyclists as “road maggots” and suggesting drivers should be allowed to run them over. Go figure.

    2. Lack of information is a barrier? I can’t accept that; there is a heap of information out there. It seems to me that people just can’t be arsed to find out. Do they want to be spoonfed?
      As someone who grew up in the six counties of Ireland I find this lack of interest in politics disturbing. There it was a VERY important matter; here it is less so but still vitally important. I have voted for six different parliaments: Stormont, Westminster, the Dáil Éireann, NSW, Australian Federal (double dissolution) and Wellington. I never found a “lack of information”. I went out and found it.
      Do they want decent transport (PT), do they want parks, libraries, arts etc. etc? Well they need to vote – and not for Crone or Thomas; they promise more of the same failed “more roads” policies.
      Goff is not perfect but politics is almost invariably a choice of the “least worst” option. He’s the least worst for me. I like Swarbrick but under FPTP it’s a wasted vote. Under STV I’d give her #1 and Goff #2: my vote would count then.
      Follow half the advice I was given in Belfast; “Vote early and vote often”.

      1. If laziness was the primary factor, you’d expect to see a *similar* share of people citing a lack of information as a barrier to voting in local and central government elections. In actual fact, the share of people citing a lack of information as a barrier to voting in local elections is considerably higher.

        This suggests that local elections are *disproportionately* likely to suffer from a lack of good information on candidates and policies, and that this discourages voters.

  4. Somehow local govt has to actually engage with younger people. Regular visits to schools, explaining the relevance of what local govt actually does would be a start.

    1. Including in the voting leaflets some sort of description of responsibilities that go with the posts would be a start. I still have no idea what DHB and Licensing Trust people actually do / how they contribute / what responsibility they carry. I just perceive those roles as jobsworth positions for wannabe full time Pollies. (Ps, I do understand how boards and governance work in principal – just not what these entities and positions are actually charged with)

  5. I think 60% of people are just lazy, and by that I mean they have better things to do with their time.
    Lack of information is a barrier but it is related to laziness. I am too lazy to find out about candidates may just mean I’m too lazy to vote.
    There are so many other distractions that are of greater interest to bother registering to vote, let alone voting. Younger people are more busy than retired folk so they have to prioritise their time. General elections seem more important so there is more motivation to vote. Local body elections just seem boring and not worth the effort.

    My sister is in her early 20s and I had to drag her to the poll booth for the national elections.
    After numerous reminders her local election envelope is still just sitting on the counter and will probably go in the bin.
    I know several of the local board candidates because they have been around for ages and my sister knows several of them as well. She and Len know each other on a first name basis, but she didn’t vote in the last local body elections. When I asked why, she just said she forgot about it.

    I think national elections have the advantage of being done “live” on one day so everyone knows about it and goes and does it as a family or whatever.

    I support online voting, but I don’t think it will make any difference to turnouts after the first time they are used (novelty factor).
    I support some online voting scheme like liquid democracy where you can delegate your vote to someone else in various areas like health, education, economy etc and let them decide on your behalf.

  6. Freaking hell, so much of the above is grim reading. Everything is just too difficult. Registration, reading up the candidates values, ticking a box, pale male stale, etc etc. There are hundreds of millions of people around the world who would crawl over broken glass to have a say on who should represent them. Just another fist world problem I guess.

  7. I am amazed at people who say that they don’t have enough information about candidates etc. The chap at my work who did that in my hearing got the fake solicitous “gee it must be really difficult to get by these days without being able to use Google”, and the young woman who sat next to me got the ” I saw you spend a whole lunchtime looking up prices etc for stuff you wanted to buy. If you can do that for a hair straightener – what stops you looking up your candidates?” I do agree about the postal ballot thing. It is very hard to find a post box these days.

    1. Here’s what I got when I did a google search for one of the non-incumbent candidates in my ward:
      * A candidate profile from C&R, which only provides a one-paragraph bio
      * An NZ Herald article on an unrelated person’s wedding proposal
      * Linkedin profiles for people with matching names
      * A voting guide published by someone named Stephen Berry, which seems to be full of bad ideas
      * Two news articles that mention the candidate but don’t interview him or provide any further details.

      That’s it. Information on local board candidates is even harder to come by. If you followed your own (rather condescending) advice you’d know that.

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