Low voter turnout

What is to be made of the low turnout in the local body elections? National preliminary voting tallies had the turnout at under 40% (39.5%), and by yesterday morning this had risen to 41.8%.

In other words, a majority of enrolled electors - and that excludes all those not even enrolled - failed to cast their ballots.

That tally is 0.5 percentage points up on 2013 but 7.2 down on the 49% of 2010. Since the local government reorganisation of 1989, apart from a 1998 blip, the trend has been steadily lower. In effect, this year it levelled off.

Local Government New Zealand had launched a campaign to lift voter numbers above 50%, and must be disappointed.

Research on the previous election outlines main stated reasons for not voting: not interested, 14%, did not know enough about the candidates, 31%, forgot or left it too late, 24%, too busy, 14%.

Turnout figures turn attention to electronic voting, the argument being many (especially younger), voters do just about all transactions online.

Filling out paper forms is an anachronism, as is posting letters. Eight councils opted to take part in an online trial this election (not including Dunedin which pulled out last year).

In April the Government stopped the trial, citing security and vote integrity issues.

When postal voting was first introduced, it was supposed to raise voting rates by making the process easier. But any effect was temporary, and it is unlikely online voting would make a significant difference beyond the margins.

Most of the stated reasons for not voting remain because it is just the medium that has changed. Online voting will come, and so it should.

It is no surprise turnout is worse, on the whole, in the cities. Auckland and Christchurch are at a dismal 38.3%, while Hamilton is 33.3%.

Dunedin was 53% in 2010, 43.1% in 2013 and 45.2% this year. Wellington city is 45.6%, well ahead of the Hutt Valley. In the cities it can be hard to know for whom to vote.

Self-supplied candidate profiles are limited, too many containing plenteous platitudes and worthy aims. It can be difficult to understand candidates' fundamental political outlook, and hard questions are seldom answered.

The grapevine works more effectively in small communities, and voters are more likely to know a lot more about candidates.

So, it is also no surprise leading turnouts are from lightly-populated areas: the Chatham Islands 70.9%, Mackenzie 64.3%, Central Hawke's Bay 62.7% and Central Otago, with three strong mayoral contenders, 62%.

Queenstown Lakes is 54.1%, up eight percentage points from three years ago. Waitaki's 50.7%, where the mayoralty was a walkover and with non-contested wards, is down 7.5.

In Clutha, plummeting 19 percentage points to 40.8%, the sitting mayor was unopposed as were several ward councillors.

The Waitaki and Clutha figures can be read positively. Popular mayors were seen as leading councils in the right direction and there was no pressing imperative to vote.

But even if electors do not vote, it is vital they are there as a backstop. And it is, after all, a democratic right, a freedom, not to vote.

If matters are moving along without too many problems, those most interested in the issues, the personalities and the process can cast their votes and help ensure worthy candidates come through.

They are, in a sense, proxy voting for the wider majority. When matters become acute, when it is really important, a larger reservoir can come out in force.

Thus, local politicians remain accountable for their performance, even with low turnouts.Despite the disappointment, turnouts are still large enough for local democracy to function reasonably.

Although an ever-increasing lack of interest in local government is apparent, that need not signal a rejection of local politics. If big issues affect communities they can still be mobilised and exert pressure.

While more attention to local government is desirable, enough people are still concerned enough to make a difference.

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