Inquiry into election includes low voter turnout

Please make a submission to the inquiry! Submissions close 4 May.

After every General Election, the Justice and Electoral Select Committee undertakes an inquiry into the election. Conventionally these inquiries have been limited to looking at the administrative conduct of the election, taking quite a narrow view so as to ensure cross-party participation and support. For an example see the 2008 report.

After the 2011 election, however, with the lowest voter turnout in over 100 years (just 74.21 percent)  it was obvious that a deeper inquiry was needed. My colleague Gareth Hughes called for the inquiry to address low turnout late last year.

That’s why I’m pleased to see that the terms of reference of the recently announced inquiry include voter turnout. It’s also great news that as well as presenting a formal chance for the agencies involved in the election to submit on their work and experiences, the inquiry has also been opened up for public submissions. Detail of how to make a submission is here. Submissions close on 4 May.

(Other additions to the terms of reference this time around include the merger of the Electoral Commission and the Chief Electoral Office, the conduct of the MMP referendum, and the impact of the Christchurch Earthquakes).

I hope there’ll be lots of submissions addressing the specific issue of youth enrolment, which reached new lows last year. Only 77 percent of eligible voters aged 18-24 were enrolled to vote, down from 82 percent at the previous election. Just as concerning, last year’s statistics showed for the first time a creep into the 25-29 age bracket of low enrolment that we haven’t seen before, down from 93 percent in 2008 to just 85 percent in 2011. This is really worrying as it suggests that if we don’t engage young people early, they are likely to stay disengaged.

While the terms of reference don’t specifically mention youth enrolment, they do cover “the maintenance of accurate enrolment data”, and I’d argue that this needs to include ensuring that as many eligible young people as possible are on the roll.

One way to do this is to update the current enrolment process. This is now woefully outdated, especially for overseas voters who are required to return their ballots by fax. Who uses a fax these days!? I’ve lost count of the number of my overseas friends who said they tried to enrol and cast special votes, but gave up because the process was too hard.

I think we need to introduce online enrolment before the next election, and in the middle-to-long term, explore the option of online voting. In an informal online poll that Gareth conducted late last year, two thirds of the 1000 respondents indicated they would have been more likely to enrol if they could have done so online. It’s well past time we updated this process and brought electoral enrolment into the 21st century.

I’m also interested in the broader reasons why young people might be feeling disengaged from politics and disinclined to enrol and vote. I have some theories about this but am hoping to talk to young people directly about it in the coming months and start to build a picture of how politicians could better engage young people, as well as structural and educational changes we could make to engage young people in politics.

What do you guys think? Why are we seeing declining youth engagement, and how can we turn this around?

PS remember to make a submission to the inquiry! Submissions close 4 May.

20 Comments Posted

  1. Online voting is a terrible idea. It destroys the secret ballot (an optionally secret ballot isn’t secret), and there’s no evidence that it would increase turnout (council elections conducted by postal voting have much lower turnout than general elections).

    Better to have a modernised system of automatic enrolment that removes the need for address tracking. Any citizen or permanent resident who’s physically in NZ is almost certainly entitled to vote, so build a register of those (we more or less have one) and let anyone vote by providing id (the id-phobic could vote at their local booth or by statutory declaration in the traditional fashion).

  2. Why are people voting up the comment by muslim-shop? That poster, and also free man, are clearly spammers who’ve scraped text from an earlier comment.

    [frog: Indeed, they are, but have somehow slipped through – the spam filter is good, but not perfect. Those comments deleted and marked as spam now. Hopefully the spam filter will learn from that. But I need to be careful, because have had instances of genuine comments being marked by the filter as spam in the past.]

  3. Given that John Key’s just gone on the record saying that it’s more important to him that young people continue not voting than it is to implement what National believes to be good policy for which it has an electoral mandate, it’s hard for me to imagine how the low turnout issue can ever be treated seriously by the current government.

  4. I think the problem with ‘centurist’ political parties, is they are more about the aquisition/control of power than actually what they do with it.

    “Smile & Wave” & promise everything but deliver much less. Which side of politics does this belong to ?? The Centurist..


  5. “My comment about “likely to vote on the left” was widely stated.”

    Yup, but I haven’t seen any evidence given to back this view.

    As for youth, I don’t think they are apathetic or particularly narcissist, they’ve just been fed a view of the world that starts and ends with the individual’s own needs, preferences and desires and little view of the wider social impacts that come from individual choices. This thinking happens on both the right and the left, with the right supposedly intent on a society which does not impede any individual action, and the left often embracing a legalistic mindset about rights and responsibilities of individuals. Both show little concern for the collective good.

  6. bjchip:

    Just saying you have to be so careful with the correlations not necessary being causical.

    But yes – TV must be huge. If it dominates a child’s attention so it’s their only significant window to the wider world, then it cannot help but be a potent indoctrination tool. Same for state schooling.

  7. The only things these modern children seem to take seriously is themselves. What have we done to them?

    We never weaned ’em from “the glass teat”.

    See that box in the lounge of every home in NZ, the one with 24/7 idiocy available? The one that puts the thinking mind to sleep?

    That was the problem for the past 30 years.

    Look to the introduction of the TV and then the subsequent increase in the crime rate.

    My view is that the broadcasts ought to be turned off. ALL off, from 1500 to 1900 and from 2330 – 0500, every school day and 1000-1700 every weekend.

    Problem is that NOW you’d have to block You-Tube and online media as well, same time.


  8. One of Americas founding president (apparently) said that when you see your government changing, but not the agenda, then you can know you are under tyranny. he was suggesting that when major parties become infiltrated by a “greater force” then your democracy is essentially a b.s public relations show, merely giving the democracy the illusion of empowerment. Something to contemplate?

    My best guess is that NZ’s major parties (inc. Greens and now ACT) start of with conviction and zeal , but in time become just big businesses and “part of the system”. The conviction guys tend to leave and the career guys come to take over.

  9. Ladies and gentlement, welcome to the world of centre politics.

    As noted above, by and large, with the two big parties, you get much of a muchness of policy, to the point where an incoming colour-change does not signal a mass reversal of previous colour legislation. The parties are not fully saturated colours, just tinges.

    And as I have noted previoously, once a centerist party gets in, they stay in until they really piss the electorate off, and then there is a flip-flop. JK has learned from others in the centre politics game, and is thus more savvy about this than was Helen. Thus (barring an extraordinary event) I believe that JK will be in the big chair until the 2020 election.

    Thus it’s hardly surprising that the electorate can’t be arsed going out and confirming the current party staying in power. Its going to happen more often than not as we go forward.

  10. Zedd:

    Well, they have certainly been bitten by (so-called) Left-wing politics. It was under Clark that housing became extraordinarily unaffordable.

    Frankly I see no difference between National and Labour. Neither reforms the others major moves, so they are both the same.

  11. @AA

    The mantra sounds like “A P A T H Y” to me..

    Maybe they have NOT been bitten by the powers that be.. Right-Wing & total User-pays politics ?


  12. Here’s the mantra of modern youth: “I don’t know and I don’t care”.

    The only things these modern children seem to take seriously is themselves. What have we done to them?

  13. Online enrollment is OK. The online vote however, cannot be. The means of manually verifying individual ballots has got to be retained.

    The moment you allow completely electronic systems you have lost control of your government entirely, because there are ALWAYS bugs and holes and issues with them.

    For Democracy to work the ballots have to be trusted, and that means counting must be possible with no machine intervention at all, as a check on the machines.


  14. @ Sam B.
    My comment about “likely to vote on the left” was widely stated.
    I heard that the majority of National voters (farmers, business & wealthiest) did at least go out on the day.

    I agree that there was a perception of being a foregone conclusion.. that may well have led to a level of apathy.. BUT I dont believe that 59+1+1+(3 ?) gives this Govt. any mandate to ram through its right-wing agenda.
    On assett sales (1st reading) they only got a 1 vote ‘majority’. It would only take United Future to cross the floor & there so-called majority would vanish !


  15. Another reason for the low voter turnout might be that many people did not see much difference between the main parties. Each party claims to be different, but the reality is it’s mostly window dressing.

    Labour will say that it opposes sale of state assets, but the hard reality is that since the corporatisation of the SOEs there isn’t much difference to the citizen between a state owned company and a privately owned one. Both state owned and privately owned companies main reason for existance is to make a profit for their shareholders, be that the government or others. If the government sold the SOEs for a fair price, they should be able to invest the money elsewhere and get the same return as if they owned the SOE. I don’t see Labour saying they will de-corporatise (is that a word?) the SOEs (which they were responsible for corporatising in the first place).

    What we really need is for parties with radically different policies, so that the citizens can see their votes really do make a difference. Sadly, all the main parties are converging on the center or center-right. Even the Green party has been moving towards the center.

  16. This is now woefully outdated, especially for overseas voters who are required to return their ballots by fax. Who uses a fax these days!?
    Huh? I certainly didn’t need a fax machine to update my details from australia. I had to print a form, sign it, scan it, and email it back to a very helpful person on the other end. Granted it could still be much easier but I didn’t need to fax anything.

    and in the middle-to-long term, explore the option of online voting.

    I’m all for electronic counting if implemented well even though I think it’s rather meaningless when we can count all our votes in an evening anyway, but there are at least two reasons why I think we need to be extremely cautious about any form of online voting, which are the risk of losing a voter verified paper trail, and the guarantee of anonymity when casting a vote.

    Both of there are, or should certainly be considered a critical pillar of our democracy.

    Voter verified paper trails ensure that people can have trust in the counting process. They make sure that if the count is ever suspect, then it’s possible to hold a low tech recount using a prices that a high proportion of the entire populace is able to understand.

    The guarantee of anonymity ensures that there’s minimal chance of people being coerced to vote against their will.

    If online voting means some variant of internet voting then I’ve yet to see an online voting proposal that adequately addresses either of these.

    On a related topic, does anyone know of evidence that the prospect of jury callups might be keeping some people off the roll?

  17. “Estimates are that 35% did not vote & most would likely have voted ‘on the left’ if they had done so.”

    Who made those estimates? I saw in the Dom Post potted interviews with some who didn’t vote and the only ones who expresssed a choice said that if they had voted, they’d have voted National.

    I suspect that the media illusion that Key was going to romp home without difficulty made many on all parts of the political spectrum feel there was no point voting. The clear ineptitude of the Labour party probably put some off as well.

  18. I realise that everyone who has the ‘right’ to vote also has the right to abstain (or not bother).. BUT it seems that apathy may well be the real reason why Key & Co. got a second term.

    Estimates are that 35% did not vote & most would likely have voted ‘on the left’ if they had done so.

    This could have given the Labour/Green opposition a land-slide, instead of 3 more years on the opposition benches ! OH DEAR !!

    Kia-ora Green Voters

  19. As an old codger even I can see the sence in having enrollment online. Isn’t our esteamed leader rabbiting on about technology being more cost effective at the moment? Any rate, the electoral role is simply a large data base so online is the logical way to go.

    I am a little uncomfortable with online voting though. How can you be 100% sure that whoever pushes the send button is the person they claim to be?

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