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
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
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
What the voters see is both major parties trying to trump one
another in the centre with policies which do not look vastly
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
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
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
Otherwise, non-voters fall into two broad categories - those
who are indifferent to politics and those who find voting an
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
- John Armstrong is the New Zealand Herald political