Alarm at low voter turnout

There are calls for online voting to be fast-tracked as Dunedin City Council voting returns slump towards a record low in this year's local body elections.

The idea was raised by Local Government New Zealand president Lawrence Yule as voter returns for the DCC election crawled to 11.7% by yesterday afternoon.

With 10 days until postal voting closes at noon on October 12, the figure is well down on the same point in the past two DCC elections.

In 2010, 21.12% of voters had responded by now, and in 2007, returns stood at 18.09%.

In both cases, last-minute rushes saw returns reaching 52.96% (2010) and 47.47% (2007).

However, this year's results were shaping as a record low, at least in recent memory, although another last-minute rush was possible, Dunedin electoral officer Pam Jordan said.

''I would describe it as disappointingly low at this stage.''

Mr Yule told the Otago Daily Times the returns to date in Dunedin were a ''worry'' and underscored the need to move towards online voting.

''I just don't think what we've got is working.''

Local Government Minister Chris Tremain has already announced online voting would be trialled in the 2016 local body elections, but exactly how many councils would be involved was not yet clear, Mr Yule said.

''If the voter turnout is lower this time, then we have got to say 'should we look at pushing that a bit harder?','' Mr Yule said.

However, Dunedin's results appear to be at odds with most other local authorities across Otago, where returns to date are similar to the 2010 election.

Only the Central Otago District Council has recorded a notable drop in returns so far, at 27.7% yesterday compared with 34% at the same time in 2010.

However, CODC electoral officer Kara Leckie said she was not worried.

''It might catch up. Sometimes there's swings and roundabouts because there are things on,'' Mrs Leckie said.

Elsewhere, Queenstown Lakes District Council returns are down slightly, at 18.9% compared with 20% in 2010, while Waitaki District Council's are almost identical, at 24.26% compared with 24.44% in 2010.

Clutha District Council returns have reached 25.08%, slightly ahead of 2010, when they were 23.92%.

Otago Regional Council and Southern District Health Board returns will not be available until after the election.

Further south, returns for Invercargill City Council are down, at 23.6% compared with 27.9% in 2010, Gore District Council's is also down from 30% in 2010 to 25.7% this year, while Southland District Council's are up, at 21.8% compared with 15.4% in 2010.

In Christchurch, 18.43% have voted (18.55% in 2010) and in Wellington 15.47% (15.87% in 2010).

Mr Yule said he did not think apathy was the only reason voter turnout was low in Dunedin, saying the postal voting system itself was also part of the problem.

Giving voters three weeks to vote ''trivialised'' the process, encouraging people to wait and, in some cases, causing them to forget or not bother, he said.

The system had been introduced to address declining turnouts at polling booths, but, despite an initial boost, turnout as a national average had declined - excluding Auckland in 2010 - for the past five elections, he said.

''We need to have a pretty good look at it.''

Online voting would cater for ''a whole group of people'', particularly younger voters, who expected to be able to do more online.

''I think that's probably the way of the future and I think we've just got to move with the times really.''

Online voting could be conducted in parallel with postal voting, and over a shorter 10-day window to add ''urgency'', he said.

Another option could be to scrap postal voting, leaving voters to have their say online or in a polling booth, he said.

University of Otago political studies lecturer Associate Prof Janine Hayward believed there would be no harm in a shift to online voting, but cautioned research suggested it would make only a ''marginal'' difference to turnout.

The turnout in Dunedin appeared to reflect high voter satisfaction, as well as the size of the central ward, with its 35 candidates, which research suggested discouraged voters from engaging, she said.

Voters also needed an exciting election campaign, or important issues, to feel motivated to vote, and ''the Dunedin campaign is not scoring very well on any of these factors'', she said.

Mrs Jordan said electoral officers across the country would be ''very keen'' to see a switch to online voting, having lobbied the Government to make the change.

''I would be quite happy to participate in that trial. I should imagine that there will be more volunteers than places available.''

- chris.morris@odt.co.nz

 

Add a Comment

top_header.jpg

bottom_header.jpg