Spurring voters into action

There are lots of ideas for improving the turnout at local authorities elections, but no easy answers.

No doubt we will hear about many of them through the inquiry the Justice and Electoral Committee of Parliament on Thursday resolved to initiate into the 2013 elections.

Fundamentally, however, the problem is voter apathy, and fiddling with voting methods and systems will not change that.

Leading the list of ideas already has been electronic voting, promoted by some in Local Government New Zealand and Auckland Mayor Len Brown.

Make it easy and they will vote is the theory.

And what, for many in this day and age, could be easier than going online and filling out the forms?

No need to find a post box or even a pen.

That is the way the Government does business more and more, and these days you often have to pay premiums to do it any other way.

It is cheaper, for example, to renew passports electronically.

Postal voting was introduced to lower costs and encourage participation.

For a while this worked, and returns did blip upwards.

Any novelty, however, has long worn off, and there are now suggestions reverting to polling stations and a polling day would increase turnout.

The turnout for national elections is much higher under this method, and it makes a special event of the process.

One drawback with postal voting and a long period between votes going out and polling closing is that ballot papers sit around and any urgency is missing.

Human nature being what it is, procrastination takes effect and nothing happens in the end.

The same procrastination would occur with electronic voting, and there would also be a sustained and costly period where two systems would run in parallel so the minority without internet access were not disenfranchised.

Any freshness with electronic voting would likely soon wane.

The complexity of voting is blamed as well, with high numbers of candidates and different systems.

Health board and several local authorities, with Dunedin being the southern example, use single transferable vote where voters rank rather than tick.

While there is little doubt the subtleties of STV - compared with knowledge of first-past-the-post - remain beyond the understanding of many, ordering candidates in preference should not be that hard.

It should, in fact, be easier than the complexities of Lotto's various options.

New Zealanders seem to be able to cope with these ''games'' and the complications of sports and racing betting because they choose to.

What really matters is the level of interest in local elections.

Are voters prepared to put the effort in?

Are they up to reading about candidates, talking to friends about them, even going to hear them speak?

There is some responsibility on residents to make this effort.

The self-supplied information in the voting booklet is inadequate on its own.

Too many write-ups are full of platitudes. Fortunately, Otago territorial authorities, including Dunedin, are small enough that word of mouth has a significant influence.

People do hear about the strengths and weaknesses of candidates through others, especially if they activily seek out views and proffer their opinions.

Perhaps, though, it does not really matter too much if significant numbers of voters fail to become engaged.

As long as a solid relatively informed core vote, they can choose our representatives with a fair degree of wisdom.

The right to vote for everyone, that essence of democracy, that privilege so many take for granted, exists even when it is not exercised.

It remains the safeguard for much wider engagement should that be needed.

Should controversial issues or controversial personalities emerge, more voters can and do become involved.

Sometimes, all it takes is a close mayoral battle, something missing in Otago outside Oamaru.

Three years ago in Dunedin, when stadium funding was high on the agenda, the steady downward trend in voting reversed.

Turnout climbed back over 50%, before falling back again.

There were issues this year, but none contentious enough to jolt many from their apathy or lethargy; none directly affecting enough people to spur them into action.

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