Holly Walker

Inquiry into election includes low voter turnout

by Holly Walker

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 This is now woefully outdated, especially for overseas voters who are required to return their ballots by fax.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.