Voters, it’s your fault again

A low turn out is an important democratic signal, not a problem to fix.

Voter turn out for the local body election this weekend was consistent with the low levels of the past. It was down on the 2010 election, but similar to the previous two decades of local elections.

Yet all manner of local politicians, and some pundits, have claimed the turn out is low, and blamed everything but politicians.

The vote was not low by local election standards. Last election was 49%. This election was 43%. But these statistics from Local Government NZ show a slightly declining trend since 1989. It only covers 24 years.

Postal voting was introduced to avert this decline (and save money). It worked for two elections, then the decline continued.

All manner of international research has shown that at most postal voting leads to a very mild increase in voter participation. But it certainly does not decrease voter turnout.

Now local body politicians have got a new wheeze for us voters: e-voting.

The most consistent influence on turnout in any election for anything is the nature of the candidates and the nature of the issues facing them and their electorate.

Blaming the mechanism, media coverage, low information, or even social disparity is ridiculous. It implies that the public are so simple that we can’t work out how to vote, when to vote, or who to vote for. Some local politicians think voters need to be coddled into voting.

The truth is that when politics matters, the public will ensure their voice is heard.

A low turnout is an important part of the election result. It signals that the public aren’t much upset nor motivated. It signals also that the institution itself isn’t too important to them. These a perfectly fine signals. And it isn’t really the job of local body politicians to use our money to attempt to convince us that they are important. The public will be the judge of that – and in this election, they’ve made their judgement again.

For once, political scientists seem to have the most reasonable perspective. Jean Jackson at Otago University and Andy Asquith from Massey both doubted changes (radio clip) to e-voting or other methods would make a difference.

There might be all manner of reasons for trying out some new voting systems, but low turnout is not one of them. It’s poor form for otherwise smart people to use it as a lever to avoid blame, or advance their pet project.

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