Cherishing local democracy

Hands are being wrung around the country because of the poor turnout at the local authority elections.

Local Government New Zealand thinks there should be a “short, sharp independent” inquiry in addition to the normal review. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said voting needs to be easier. National leader Christopher Luxon also joined calls for reform.

The will seems to be there. The way is not so clear.

Certainly, there are no easy fixes, as some might claim. In particular, online voting will not somehow engage the masses in local government.

It is true a younger generation might find filling out a hard-copy form, putting it in an envelope and posting it a little strange. Letterboxes might be seldom checked. Finding a post box is problematic.

Nevertheless, online voting continues to throw up security and digital access questions. A lot of effort has in the past decade gone unsuccessfully into online voting. A Justice Select Commission has also found the introduction of online voting overseas made little difference to participation levels.

Then there is the “make-a-day-of-it” polling booth idea. Voting as a social event could be advantageous. However, the costs and complexities are many and varied for the different votes and special votes across territorial and regional councils, community boards and liquor licensing trusts. Imagine, too, trying to rank a long list of candidates in a booth setting.

Aside from the practicalities, it is hard to see a polling day drawing in younger voters. After all, postal voting itself was introduced to make voting easier and increase participation.

It seems the national turnout this year will not quite make 40%, down from 42.2% in 2019, and 57% in 1989.

Rural districts, smaller communities where candidates are more likely to be known, always do best. But the provisional figures show a 7.5% decline to 45%. The provincial fall was 6.5% to 40% and the metropolitan areas were 1.4% down to 36.4%.

Provisional figures in the South are all over the place. Dunedin, on the back of strong local issues and a hot mayoral race, was up from 45.6% to 48.2%. Surprisingly, though, Invercargill’s contested mayoral race did not stop a decline, from 53% to 51.8%.

Percentages in Waitaki, however, where the mayoral race was clear-cut, and Central Otago, where the mayor had no opposition, were both well down. Gore, home to the knife-edge battle for the top job, was up by more than seven percentage points to 52.7%, taking the highest place in the region.

Auckland managed just 31%, and the Otara ward slipped under 20%.

It is no surprise that most voters are older, homeowners and in wealthier areas. That, of course, affects who is elected and the policies adopted.

The consensus this year is that grumpy voters rejected the status quo, including the Government and its moves to centralise and dominate through rules and requirements. Three Waters was a particular focus.

Three Waters and looming Resource Management changes are slicing away much of local authorities’ responsibilities.

The less power local authorities have the less relevant they become. Turnouts are likely to fall further.

Against this background, it is ironic that some improvements might be made to the running and promoting of elections by more centralisation through the Electoral Commission. Local authorities run their own elections, also using contractors, and performance has been erratic.

It might also make sense to adopt single transferable voting (STV) across the country. Many voters in the South were using both it and first-past-the-post (FPP). FPP is easier to understand but STV is fairer overall. All voters have had experience with STV through the district health board elections.

While it is difficult to see improvements in local government turnout in an increasingly individualistic society, local democracy is to be cherished and safeguarded.

At least, even if many do not vote, their right to do so remains a safeguard. At least, there is some accountability for those who make significant decisions on our behalf.