Voter turnout a bad sign

Voter turnout a bad sign

There's been a lot of soul searching about the historically low voter turnout at this year's local body elections, which followed the lowest voter turnout in 100 years at the 2011 general election.

Discussion has focused on ways to make it easier for people to vote, such as online voting. But few have questioned the wider implications of the low voter turnout –and what it might mean for the health of our democracy.

The truth is that in New Zealand, and around the world, more and more people are becoming disengaged with politics, and disenfranchised from the political process.

Politicians rank at the bottom of the scale of esteem in many countries, including New Zealand, and many people feel they cannot trust politicians to represent their interests. Others are disillusioned with the way our democracy works, don't think government is relevant to their lives, or are simply apathetic. This is reflected in a pattern of declining voter turnout at elections, declining participation in political parties, and declining interest in politics.

A recent audit of political engagement in Britain found that Britons are increasingly "disgruntled, disillusioned and disengaged" with their political system, and indifferent to politics. Only 24 per cent thought their system of governing worked reasonably well, and only 49 per cent felt the issues being debated in Parliament were relevant to their lives.

Ruth Fox, who conducted the audit, said the finding that only a quarter of the population are satisfied with their political system raises serious questions about its ability to maintain public support and confidence in the future.

I suspect we would find similar levels of disengagement, cynicism and apathy here. This is a real concern, because ongoing cynicism and disengagement in our political processes poses a risk to our democracy. Public trust and confidence in political institutions is the basis of political consent between politicians and the voters they represent. If public trust and confidence continues to erode, it will undermine the authority and legitimacy of government, and trust in the democratic process itself.

The Government should be concerned about this as it pursues its agenda of shrinking local democracy, undermining the autonomy of local government and corporatising as many of its functions as possible.

So, too, should the Local Government Commission, which is reviewing the structure of local government in Wellington.

To date, much of the debate about restructuring local government has focused on whether it might bring about more efficiencies and cost savings. Few seem to have considered the likely effect of amalgamating councils on local engagement and democracy, but this surely should be one of the most important considerations.

When seven Auckland councils were amalgamated into a super city, many predicted that it would result in higher voter turnouts and citizen engagement. But voter turnout for the Auckland Council (35 per cent) was one of the lowest in New Zealand.

Obviously many factors influence election turnouts. But in general, the closer a council is to its local community, and the more relevant it seems to people's lives, the more likely people are to vote and to become politically engaged.

Conversely, if people perceive local government as distant and deaf to their needs, they are likely to engage less.

Only 41 per cent of Wellingtonians voted in the recent local election. On the other hand, most of the public meetings for mayoral and council candidates were well attended, which I took as a sign of a healthy local democracy.

The same cannot be said of public meetings for the regional council. Despite its hugely important work, there was little interest in regional council candidates. I'm not sure whether this reflects satisfaction with the council's performance, or a perception it's not particularly relevant to people's lives.

At any rate, it's clear that high voter turnout and high levels of political engagement are signs of a healthy democracy, while low voter turnout and low levels of political engagement are warning signs that people are feeling apathetic or disenfranchised from the political process.

This suggests that if we want to increase voter turnout and political engagement, we should be wary of moves to get rid of layers of local democracy, and supersize Wellington into a province-wide super city.

For while a corporate-style super city might bring about greater efficiencies (the jury is still out on that), it may well result in lower voter turnouts and even less local political engagement, which would be unhealthy for our democracy.


Sue Kedgley