People not voting for many reasons

Local government figures. ODT graphic.
Local government figures. ODT graphic.
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.

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.
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 bin.

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 best solution.

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 issue.

What it did show was that low participation in local body elections was not just a New Zealand problem.

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