Opinion: How to net all those non-voters? Might not be worth trying

Here is a prediction: voter turnout in September's general election will slump to a new low.

To understand why look no further than research conducted by Massey University on its three campuses, the findings of which were released this week.

A survey of about 300 students between the ages of 18 and 24 found 75% of those who did not intend voting at this year's election would be more likely to do so if they could vote online.

Well they would say that, wouldn't they? Such is the low value those respondents put on their vote that, rather than going to the polling booth, they are prepared to wait until the ballot box comes to them. Then they might vote. Then again, they probably will not.

The quaint old notion of civic duty which - in most cities and towns - requires nothing more taxing than the capacity to put one foot in front of another to access the nearest polling booth and, once inside, grip a marker pen and place two ticks on a piece of paper ... well, you know what happens to quaint old notions.

When it does happen, the novelty of online voting will last all of about 10 seconds, leaving the big question unresolved: how do you lift voter turnout generally and, more specifically, in younger age bands where not voting is becoming almost a badge of honour?

The overall turnout at the last election fell markedly. Less than 75% of the voting-age population cast a vote in 2011 compared with 79.5% in 2008.

If anything, the circumstances which contributed to that outcome are even more entrenched.

The political parties naturally view non-voters as a potentially plentiful catchment to be exploited. Those parties forget they may be the very reason why people are no longer voting. That is especially the case with Labour. It shed about 180,000 votes in 2011.

National, which picked up barely 5000 more votes than it did in 2008, was not the beneficiary of Labour's poor showing. Some of those votes obviously went to the Greens, while New Zealand First also likely gained from the exodus from Labour. But the figures suggest a good many simply did not vote at all.

Like other parties, Labour will be mobilising its volunteers for a massive street-level campaign to identify those non-voters sympathetic to its cause and ensure they make it to a polling booth on election day.

Like other parties seeking to recapture some of that non-vote, Labour is handicapped, however, by three factors likely to drive even more people not to vote.

The first is that this election is not one marked by a mood for change. That alone is enough to keep voters at home.

Second, many voters will have long decided that the result is a foregone conclusion, so why bother to vote.

Third, while there is an increasing divergence by Labour away from the orthodox market economics practised by National, the former party's preference for a far more interventionist style of governing has yet to really penetrate voters' consciousness to any great extent. That is a slow process made even slower by almost weekly distractions from Labour's main messages.

What the voters see is both major parties trying to trump one another in the centre with policies which do not look vastly different.

John Key's overt pragmatism has exacerbated this trend. National's lack of a strong ally on the centre-right has forced him to moderate National's policy thrust. Labour's desire not to be hostage to the Greens was reflected in Helen Clark similarly avoiding doing too much which risked angering those centre-ground voters who kept her in power for nine years.

In short, MMP may bear some responsibility in depressing turnout. It cannot be blamed alone, however, for the abysmal turnout of younger voters.

According to official survey data, about a quarter of those aged between 18 and 24 did not enrol to vote at the 2011 election.

It is estimated that about 42% of those in that age band did not vote. The excuses ran from the mundane - work and other commitments - to could not be bothered to vote. For some who have no trust in politicians or did not like any of the party leaders, not voting could be defended as a stand on principle.

Otherwise, non-voters fall into two broad categories - those who are indifferent to politics and those who find voting an inconvenience.

Somewhat contrary to the Massey survey findings less than 2% of non-voters cited the location of polling places as the reason for them not casting a ballot.

Seeing turnout levels as coming within its ambit but with little spare cash to do much about it, the Electoral Commission has been developing a voter participation strategy, which it hopes will spark a national discussion.

The commission is suggesting that voter education programmes be expanded in schools to stop the increasing drift of younger generations into what for many will become a habit of non-voting. It is too little, too late.

Meanwhile, political parties continue to strive to come up with the magic bullet policy-wise which will have young voters flocking to the polling booths.

Those parties are by and large wasting their time and money. The plague of indifference to things political will not be cured by supposed solutions handed down from on high.

The frustration of the young is that politics is an old people's game - and is likely to remain so until the baby-boom generation dies off.

In the meantime, that older generation will continue to use its weight in numbers to get more and more resources out of taxes paid by a smaller and smaller workforce.

While younger generations are already saddled with student loans and shut out of the housing market, intergenerational warfare has yet to break out.

When that happens, the young will find their own leaders, ideas and actions, in short, their voice, from within their own population cohort - not someone imposed on them from outside.

- John Armstrong is the New Zealand Herald political correspondent.