Editorial: no more butts

by The Listener / 19 September, 2013
Kiwi voters need to get off the couch and into the polling booth.
It’s only right that people who “vote with their feet” get the political say in this country – but what of the multitudes who vote with their bottoms?

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Non-voting has an impact. It distorts democracy. As the local body elections approach and the traditional apathy stirs, it’s time for politicians of all stripes to make a concerted effort to improve voter participation.

Non-voters give us the charity not of their silence, but of an increasingly disturbing void. The concept of a Government or local authority having a genuine mandate is growing dangerously frail. When more than 800,000 voters out of an eligible 3.1 million decline to vote as in 2011, how are politicians to divine the true preferences of the population?

Idealists not unreasonably believed our adoption of MMP – a proportional system in which every vote counts – would be an anti-apathy elixir. At best, it may have slowed the decline in voter participation. But where once, just a generation ago, we were boasting of our 90%-plus participation rate in general elections, today we have a less than 75% vote rate. That’s a quarter of those who could vote choosing not to. For local body elections, we fall well short of the 50% participation mark.

The causes of voter non-participation vary. As with joining political parties, voting has become decidedly less of a statement of self-definition than it was for previous generations. It is cool in some cyber circles to affect cynicism and deride politics as boring. Certainly, the quantum decline of the traditional media has harshly affected local politics. Although some newspapers have excellent coverage of the issues in this year’s local body elections, parish-pump concerns are generally little reported and exponentially less apt to mobilise people.

However, the main culprit is a sense among many that they are already disenfranchised – that even if they did vote, it wouldn’t make a difference. Factors such as poverty, unemployment, lack of education and the alienation of being a new immigrant all undoubtedly leave many eligible voters feeling disconnected.

Making voting compulsory will not solve this. It will simply bureaucratise the problem and intimidate non-voters to no good effect. But social disconnectedness on a scale of one-in-five voters is a serious malaise. We cannot leave so many feeling so disengaged.

A positive sign was the pledge by Labour’s three leadership contestants this past month to work on recruiting non-voters. This is obviously self-interested, as Labour believes a high proportion of those will be low-income and therefore likely to be left-leaning. However electorally venal, work on reconnecting with the self-disenfranchised is to be applauded. Labour and the Green Party have amassed a new database of eligible voters during their asset-sales petition campaign – a more reliable a base now, as they had to do the exercise twice. This is forming a useful resource.

According to the party, Labour’s democratised leadership contest yielded a 20% increase in membership. It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen demonstrated before: if you give voters more of a say, they will vote more. It’s not common to cite Michael Laws among civic canons, but when he, as Whanganui Mayor, gave voters a preferential referendum on the city’s major spending projects, the poll had a bigger turnout than for the main local body elections.

Online voting will also boost engagement. Local body elections will be internet-ready for the next poll and this will surely improve and protect the feed-through of first-time voters into the voting habit. Electoral authorities should focus, too, on working with new immigrants who lack a democratic heritage and may fear consequences if they fail to support the Government.

But the obvious long-term solution is for politicians to engage with the public as often, as lucidly and as respectfully as possible. One thing we cannot do is simply ignore the ever-growing voter abstinence in New Zealand for it undermines the very integrity of the democratic system on which our system of governance is based. Politicians, of course, will carry on regardless, cobbling together coalitions from floating blocs in Parliament. But until voter turnout is restored to at least 90%, no one can be sure whether such terms as “consensus”, “majority” and “mandate” are resonant or simply hollow.
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