Getting people to vote in council elections has long been a problem. Last week’s elections showed it had not gone away.
The case for taking an interest in elected bodies that tax every household and business and make important decisions affecting our lives is strong. However only about 40 per cent of citizens vote. Some deny low turnouts are a problem. Choosing not to vote can be a deliberate choice.
You may not like any of the candidates or you may think it doesn’t matter who is on the council – the important stuff is dealt with by council staff anyway. But what can be done to improve voting turnout?
One thing that confuses voters is how to tell what candidates stand for. Most candidates run as independents and say similar things – they’re passionate about Wellington and want to make it a better place. They talk about their service, background and experience, and sometimes toss out a good idea they have come up with.
Fewer independents and more party labels might help. Labour and the Greens run candidates on a party ticket, but not enough to have a majority on a council.
Party labels give voters important clues , about what a person stands for, but the value of a party label is limited unless there is also a common and specific programme that binds the candidates.
Until the 1970s, party politics was much more important in major cities. Councillors elected on the same ticket would agree before a meeting how they would vote.
The decision was binding, just like the decisions of party caucuses in Parliament. But gradually the practice has faded.
Now the reverse is the problem. There are so many independents it is hard to get a majority for
Former mayor Kerry Prendergast spent a lot of time building coalitions, and current mayor Celia Wade-Brown has faced criticism for seemingly being unable to put together a majority to get her policies through.
Another factor that could improve public participation is more robust and better structured campaign meetings. At most meetings the candidates deliver short speeches, .often only two or three minutes each, and then there are some questions. There is no real debate on key issues, and it seems unfashionable for candidates to be too strident in criticising each other’s ideas.
Politeness is one thing; lack of engagement for fear of being thought rude or aggressive is quite another.
John Morrison was criticised as sexist and patronising for telling Celia Wade-Brown to “pipe down” at one meeting when she interrupted his answer.
Lack of debate on important issues disempowers voters. In the recent campaign the Students’ Association proposed that warrants of fitness be introduced for rental accommodation. At the mayoral debate at Massey University candidates were asked whether they supported the idea.
Questions such as whether the scheme would increase the supply or quality of rental housing, whether the standard required would be higher than the minimum standard required by law, or even whether , the council had to ‘power to introduce such a scheme, were neither asked nor discussed.
Candidates had to give an instant yes/no answer. Likewise with the living wage and other major policy issues. Having a series of meetings that each debate a single issue would give ideas more scrutiny and test the candidates’ skills better than short set-piece speeches.
There is also widespread concern about the voting system, particularly for the district health board.
If picking a single candidate for mayor was hard, then picking seven candidates from 23 standing for the health board was a nightmare for many.
An electoral system should help, not hinder, voters’ ability to express their preferences.
John Bishop is a Wellington writer and commentator.