Monday, October 10, 2022

NZ voters send local government a message: ‘Meh.’

New Zealand’s local elections closed at noon this past Saturday, with the earliest results available by evening. Today the preliminary results were released, with the final result to be announced in a few days. Traditionally, not much changes between the preliminary and final result. Overall, there were some surprises in the elections, but with fewer than 40% of eligible voters bothering to cast a ballot, it’s obvious that the message that the clear majority of New Zealand voters sent to local government was a resounding “Meh”.

New Zealand’s local elections are held on the second Saturday in October every three years (usually not the same year as Parliamentary elections), and the election is done by postal ballot—which makes the ever-declining rates of voting shocking to some observers. What’s certain is that New Zealand’s local election system is a disaster, and has been for a long time. Local Government New Zealand, which is an association representing local governments—basically, their lobby group—is calling for an independent review of the utterly broken local election system to figure out how to fix it. This is a very important thing, and so is it being independent (we can’t really trust Parliament or local governments to get it right). Still, the one thing that most people seem to agree on is that 2022 must be the last postal election in New Zealand.

People don’t use the postal system for much of anything anymore, something that’s true in countries around the world, of course. New Zealand Post delivered some voters’ election materials late, and failed to deliver them at all to potentially thousands of voters. These same delivery problems may also mean that thousands of ballots posted back in time may not have been delivered in time, and may not arrive until sometime this week, well after voting closed, and that means they won’t be counted at all (ballots had to be received by noon on Saturday, which is why I hand-delivered my Hamilton ballot to an official collection box—well, that, and the fact I wasn’t sure where I could post my ballot.

Against that backdrop, it’s difficult to be sure if the results are even representative of people who did vote, let alone the majority who didn’t. Be that as it may, we’re all stuck with wishes of the minority who got their votes in and counted, and that could be a problem in some councils. I’ll talk about Hamilton and Auckland in two different posts, but, for now, the important point is that things have GOT to change.

One problem we had this year was that a number of fringe extremists, or those supporting the extremist organisations, were trying to get elected to local government. According to Stuff, out of the some 3,000 candidates this year, around 200 “promoted false information or conspiracies”, and several were clearly affiliated with extremist groups. Of those 200, roughly a dozen were actually elected.

Local elections create an opening for extremists to take advantage of the pathetically low voter turnout to sneak into office and cause trouble, which makes those elections a huge vulnerability for democracy in New Zealand. In a time when democracy is under attack throughout the world, we must redouble our efforts to strengthen and protect it.

If postal voting was abandoned, what would it be replaced with? The obvious answer is in-person voting, as we have for general elections. Some people are pushing hard for online voting, but New Zealand’s security agencies have warned against that because of the huge potential for hackers to disrupt or steal our elections—even local elections, because adversaries would want to create chaos and division in NZ. However, I think the talk about voting methods misses the point: Why on earth would NZ voters care about local elections?

New Zealand has a unitary system of government in which Parliament is supreme. Local government has only those powers given to it by Parliament, and that doesn’t include many of the things that local governments look after in places like the USA, things like schools, police, fire, all of which are national in New Zealand. Local governments mostly administer legislation on behalf of Parliament—things like dog control, enforcement of the building act, and maintaining controls on the sale of restricted items (like alcohol, tobacco, vaping supplies). Local governments also maintain local streets and roads, collect rubbish, maintain parks and reserves, have events and promote tourism, manage public transport (if any), and take care of water and wastewater. The latter was a big issue among some—including the fringe groups—because of the governments proposed Three Waters Reforms, which is too big a topic for this post, but if Parliament pushed through the plans as proposed, it would’ve taken away one of the main things local councils do.

Because of all that, the argument goes that since local governments look after a lot of things that affect residents’ daily lives, if people can’t be bothered to vote—especially when the voting comes to their houses—it means they’re just plain lazy or too shallow. That’s nonsense.

People don’t vote partly, yes, because they either don’t appreciate or understand what local councils do, but local government is also confusing as hell, with very little information available to voters without them having to do a LOT of work and spend a LOT of time researching. Most people simply won’t do all that work, as we’ve seen. I’m on the side of those voters.

When voters receive their ballots, they also get a booklet with statements provided by the candidates themselves, all of which are (apparently) unvetted and unedited. The information booklet for Hamilton’s election was 36 pages long, and the booklet for the area we lived in on Auckland’s North Shore was 47 pages—and both were in relatively small type. Both booklets also had information on how to vote.

Aside from the booklets, some candidates advertised or had signs, some attended information meetings or debates (though in some places those fringe elements disrupted meetings by shouting at candidates so that no one could hear anything, especially from anyone the fringe didn’t like). There’s very little media coverage of smaller councils’ elections on the TV news, and not every place has newspapers—and even those that do aren’t necessarily any better informed.

The alternatives, then, are to spend hours and hours researching candidates, hours at public meetings on a weeknight, rely on that candidate supplied info in the booklets (and hope they’re not hiding being part of a fringe political group), or just don’t bother voting at all. Clearly the majority of New Zealand voters are choosing the last option.

What I think needs to happen is that postal voting has to be abolished and in-person voting has to be brought back—thenwe can think about online voting, though I personally think it’s a very bad idea, not just for security reasons, but because it would disadvantage older voters who may not be able to understand online voting, as well as poorer people who may not have a computer and/or an Internet connection at home. In-person voting, especially if conducted over a couple weeks like the general elections are, gets around nearly all those problems.

After the problem with voting is fixed, the next step is to have the Electoral Commission take over all responsibility for running local elections. Right now, councils run their own elections and are responsible for promoting them—and some councils are frankly useless at doing so. If the local elections were run like the general election, we can ensure they all work identically, that they’ll be promoted throughout the country, and that they’ll be secure.

I also think some systemic reforms are needed. All local government elections should be run under the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) system to reduce the ability of fringe/extremist candidates to sneak in. Kirikiriroa-Hamilton just switched to STV this year, something I wrote about when the decision was made. I also think that single-member wards would be better than either completely at-large, or, have multi-member wards (Hamilton has two general wards, each with six councillors, and Auckland’s wards have one or two councillors each), because it would greatly simplify and reduce the amount of research voters need to do. However, if there must be electorates with two or more members to be elected, STV is on the only rational way to do it.

Voter registration should be automatic at age 18. There’s evidence that if someone doesn’t vote by the third election after they turn 18, they will probably never vote. We need to make it as easy to vote as possible, and automatic voter registration is one of the easiest ways to do that (people who have an objection should have to opt out, in my view, rather than expecting young people to opt in). I do NOT support making voting mandatory because forcing someone to vote doesn’t automatically make them care about elections or results. A better way to do that is to have robust civics education in schools, something New Zealand is set to make compulsory.

All the reforms I back will help, but they won’t fix everything: You can lead a person to the election, but you can’t make them vote. I certainly understand why some people can’t be bothered to vote in local elections, even if I think they “should” care and “should” vote—because I do? Probably. But the danger is that with a highly-motivated extremist fringe that, while tiny, is well-organised, we could have our democracy stolen in plain sight. We MUST change the way New Zealand’s local elections are done—while we still have a democracy.

Update – October 11, 2022: I decided to wait to talk about the election results in Hamilton and Auckland until after the final results are announced on Friday. As I said in the post, not much changes between the preliminary and final result, but, maybe something might? At any rate, it's probably best to wait until the counting is truly over.


Roger Owen Green said...

I need to write about voting but idk what yet.

Arthur Schenck said...

If it's about US elections, I almost don't know what to say anymore…