28 Sep 2022

'Abysmal' early voter turnout raises questions around approach to local elections

From Checkpoint, 5:08 pm on 28 September 2022

Halfway through the voting period for the 2022 Local Government Elections, apathy appears to be having a landslide win.

Voter turnout has been at a record low - in many places just half of what it was at the same time in previous elections. 

Whangārei mayor Sheryl Mai, whose nine year tenure is coming to an end, said the district's "abysmal" voter turnout had come as a shock. 

By the most recent count of voting documents this evening, nine percent of those eligible to have a say on her replacement had done so. 

"I'm absolutely gobsmacked. I'm so disappointed. I was hoping, really hoping, that this election we'd get a massive turnout of people engaged in elections. And my hopes have been dashed," she said.   

Election data shows 8.8 percent of Auckland had voted by this afternoon.

By Tuesday night, 10.9 percent of Christchurch and 4.9 percent of Wellington had voted.

Those results are all down when compared to the same time last election.  

Taupō is home of the least engaged voters of all: Just 3.9 percent of the district's eligible population had voted by Tuesday, compared to 14.7 percent at the same time last election. 

The most engaged voters had been in Westland, sitting on 19.8 percent - but that too was still down on the 24.9 percent of votes received by the same time last election. 

"I just haven't thought about it yet... I intend to sign the paper, but I'm not sure which is the better candidate," a voter in Auckland told RNZ.

"I'm just making excuses you know, 'I'm too busy'."

AUT political scientist Julienne Molineaux said the numbers were not cause for panic just yet.  

She theorised in part, people had been preoccupied by a change to their routines.

"We've had a distraction in the last week or two in terms of our news coverage which has been very much focused around the death of our Queen Elizabeth II," she said.

"We've also had a long weekend, so people have been a bit out of routine. So possibly voters are a bit behind in terms of getting around to voting and also posting those votes in."

However, she felt the length of the voting period may also be contributing to the small turnout. 

That was great for giving people a chance to read up on the candidates, she said, but not so great for procrastinators. 

"We've got a very complex ballot with lots of decision making points, so we do need time to fill it out. But the downside of two-and-a-half weeks to vote is the possibility of just putting it off, until later. Until it's too late," she said. 

Mai feared the method of voting had not kept up with the times.

Postal voting in local body elections.

Postal voting in local body elections. Photo: RNZ / Eveline Harvey

"People are getting fewer and fewer letters in the post so maybe people are not picking them up out of their letterboxes. And even then, not being able to find where to post their voting papers once they'll filled them out. It feels like perhaps, I think, we've missed a trick with not having electronic voting for local elections."   

Auckland Council has explored that idea, after polling people in 2019 and finding two thirds of voters would prefer to vote online.

However, cost and security concerns stopped its proposed trial of an e-voting system that year, council manager governance services Rose Leonard said. 

"We will continue to advocate for more work in this area and provide any support we can to make the move to an online voting option - but we stress that this must have the backing of the local government sector and of central government," she said.

"It is not something we can deliver on our own." 

In the meantime, Molineaux said those who were voting were unlikely to fully represent society.

Research showed they were much more likely to be older, and homeowners, she said.

In turn, candidates wrote policies to suit them. 

"And so there'll be less annual policy platforms around public transport and recreation facilities and perhaps more about keeping rates down. And so this is a further disincentive for young people to vote. If they feel that they're not being spoken to by any of the candidates, it reinforces low turnout among those groups." 

That was front of mind for Auckland voter Miriama Wilson, who had bucked the trend and already got her ballot in. 

"A lot of people don't realise that the local board is more governing to them, to their personal lives, than the national one. You know, things like rates, water, things like that - it's actually the local board that dictates what happens. Have your say otherwise miss out," she said.

Voting closes on 8 October at 12pm.