At the last local government election, in Dunedin and
across most of New Zealand, voter figures dropped below 50% for
the first time since the re-organisation of local government in
1989. Dunedin City Council reporter David Loughrey asks why the
public is turning away from the action at the very heart of our
system of government, what is behind the problem, and how it
can be fixed.
Local government figures. ODT graphic.
From yesterday, postal voting forms began sliding into
letterboxes across Otago and the rest of New Zealand, as the
countdown to the 2010 local government elections began.
But with voting figures for Dunedin dropping to just 47.4% at
the last election, whoever ends up sitting at the council
table after October 9, the last day of voting, will likely
have a mandate from a minority of registered voters.
The problem is not just in Dunedin.
Across New Zealand, in the 2007 local government election,
only 44% of those enrolled to vote bothered to do so.
That was despite having the chance - some would say the
responsibility - to have a say on organisations that not only
regularly affect citizens' everyday lives, but have also
grown to become multibillion-dollar operations.
Late last year, for the first time, the quarterly rates take
for the country's councils topped $1 billion, and planned
debt for councils in long-term plans has doubled from $5
billion to $10 billion.
Dr Jacky Zvulun.
By October 9, voters will be asked to choose
representatives for organisations that supply the water they
drink, deal with the waste they produce, plan the cities and
towns they live in, control the quality of the air they
breathe, run their health services, and, at times, even provide
moral and ethical leadership.
Yet across the country, voting papers sit on kitchen tables
collecting coffee stains and getting covered by power,
telephone and credit card bills before being discovered after
the election date and turfed unceremoniously into the rubbish
In Dunedin, voter participation in elections has dropped
steadily in the last decade by nearly 20 percentage points.
But while the numbers are clear for all to see, not everybody
agrees on the seriousness of the problem, the reasons, or the
Everything from postal voting to single transferable voting
(STV), to voters concerned nothing they do will make a
difference, have been blamed for the decline.
Dr Jacky Zvulun, who in his 2009 University of Otago PhD
studied voter turnout and electoral participation in New
Zealand, said he did not expect much to change in terms of
the trend this year.
"Unfortunately, I don't see significant changes.
"I would be happy to be wrong, but I don't think it will
increase from 45%."
His overview of the literature on the subject when he started
his studies showed there was limited research done about the
What it did show was that low participation in local body
elections was not just a New Zealand problem.