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Voter turnout – what’s the story?

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Voter turnout in New Zealand local authority elections – what’s the story?

Local democracy and the opportunity to vote for local representatives is an important, some say the most important, part of a democracy. Yet in many countries, voter turnout at the local level lags a long way behind turnout at the national level.  Does this state of affairs represent disenchantment with local democracy or is there more to the story?

How should we determine the strength and relevance of a democracy? Is it simply assessed by how many citizens vote, or are there other factors that are also important?  If voter turnout is important, what actually influences peoples’ willingness to vote?

Figure 1 below shows the voter turnout for local elections in New Zealand, since the local government sector was reformed in 1989.

Figure 1:  Voter turnout for New Zealand local elections, 1989-2010

 Voter turnout for NZ local elections7

The graph shows that prior to the 2010, local authority elections, voter turnout had declined with each subsequent election since 1989 (except 1998). This decline was regarded with such concern that there have been select committee inquiries following the last three local elections to determine why turnout fell. (The Committee’s recommendations were finally actioned with the Local Electoral Act Amendment Act 2013.) However, the 2010 elections saw a significant result against the trend - an increase of five percentage points to 49 per cent. Although one statistic doesn’t constitute a new trend, this 2010 proportion is comparable to the overall average from 1989-2010 (49.63 per cent), and is actually higher than the average participation between 1962 and 1983 (46.88 per cent).

Yet the increase in the 2010 vote was due to a record turnout in the newly amalgamated Auckland Council and higher than usual voter turnout in post-earthquake Christchurch City. Most councils saw a further decline in their own turnout.

Despite the recent increase it is clear that local elections draw a lesser participation rate than central authority elections (74.21 per cent in 2011[1]). This relationship occurs often globally, and there has been much academic and authoritative work completed as to why this is.

Explaining voter turnout

Turnout is not just declining in New Zealand, it is also declining in many of the older democracies. One explanation attributes the reduction to changing values in those countries, which have seen a general decline in turnout across most elections and diminished trust in public institutions.

Increased complexity in the voting system is also one of the explanations given for the drop in voting numbers. For example, turnout in the United States began to decline in the mid-1950’s and the decline appears to be associated with an increase in the number of ballots and referenda questions facing voters and the task of voting became harder. Low turnout may even indicate broad satisfaction with local service delivery.

The Department of Internal Affairs, in its triennial report analysing voter turnout, suggests a number of factors for the decline in New Zealand, including:

  • Institutional arrangements - such as the frequency, nature and method of local elections;
  • The characteristics of particular electorates – for example, the established pattern in New Zealand is for smaller rural councils to have higher turnout rates than larger urban councils; and
  • Elector behavior – including time available, knowledge of election processes, and the salience or perceived importance of local government elections.

The latter point relates to an explanation many economists use to explain differing voter turnouts, which examines the relative tax ‘burdens’ of constituencies. This theory posits that the amount people pay in local tax has a positive correlation to their willingness to vote. That is, the more you pay in tax the more you are likely to vote for that sphere of government. In this case, since council taxes are minimal when compared to central government taxes, it is understandable that voters will take more interest in the latter.

Surveys undertaken by Local Government New Zealand into why people voted or not tell us that the main reasons for not voting are:

Reason

Percentage

Didn’t know enough about the candidates

31

Not interested    

14

Forgot or left too late 

24

Too busy

14


In contrast, the main reasons respondents gave for voting emphasized democratic duty and belief in democracy (26 per cent); to have my say (17 per cent) and the view that you cannot complain if you haven’t voted (7 per cent). There is also a strong correlation between a person’s age and whether or not they voted. 

Table 1:  Turnout by age

Age

Turnout percentage

18 - 29

34

30 - 39

55

40 – 49

72

50 – 59

81

60 – 69

85

70+

89

(Source LGNZ 2001)

One possible conclusion that might be drawn from the LGNZ surveys is that addressing the information problem might be one way of solving the turnout problem, should it be regarded as a problem.

International comparisons

So how does New Zealand compare to other countries, particularly countries in the OECD with which we would normally compare ourselves?

Figure 2:  Voter turnout for selected OECD local elections[2]

  Voter turnout for local elections3

Figure 2 shows that New Zealand sits in the middle of the pack, in terms of the most recent local authority elections in each country. Interestingly, the high proportions for Denmark and Norway may be attributed to the aforementioned economic theory of relative tax burdens – local government spending in relation to both total government spending and GDP is around four times as much when compared to New Zealand.

The theory would thus assert that citizens in Denmark and Norway place more value on voting at local elections than New Zealanders, because more of government expenditure is spent through local systems. In fact, New Zealand local government spends less public spending, proportionally, than any other local government system in the OECD – 11 per cent of total public spending while the average is 30 per cent.

Democracy is more than voting

Having placed New Zealand’s local voting in context, it is important to consider that strong democracy is not just about good procedures and electoral turnout. One of the primary arguments against compulsory voting is that it does not result in ‘quality’ votes and substantive democracy. For example, voters who would be otherwise apathetic can simply tick the candidate at the top of the electoral list. Substantive democracy involves more than voting, and local government in New Zealand meets many of the criteria, for example:

  • Suffrage is universal and any New Zealand citizen can stand as a candidate (with exception of those in jail for crimes with sentences of more than two years imprisonment);
  • Competition for seats stands has remained relatively consistent, at around 2.5 candidates for each position for the last 20 years (DIA Local Elections Statistics);
  • There is a relatively high turnover of elected members (35 – 40 per cent every election). This ensures councils are responsive to community concerns;
  • The Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA) ensures public access to information; and
  • Councils are required by law to consult and consider the views of their citizens before making decisions.

Voter turnout in local authority elections not only differs considerably between nations, it differs considerably within them as well. The historic trend in New Zealand is for voters in councils with small populations to turnout in much higher proportions to voters in centres with large populations. This may be because people have more information about the candidates or it may because they feel more engaged with their councils than do citizens in large centres. 

In terms of national turnout, when compared with similar forms of local government, those councils in the English speaking world like Australia, Canada, the United States, Ireland and the United Kingdom, overall turnout in New Zealand is amongst the highest.  The big challenge, perhaps, is to address the declining trend since 1989 and to make sure that the turnout levels in the 2010 elections are not an isolated blip.

Further Reading:

  • Department of Internal Affairs (2010) Local Election Statistics, available from www.dia.govt.nz
  • Drage, J., (2008) A Balancing Act Decision Making and Representation in New Zealand’s Local Government, Institute of Policy Studies, Victoria University, Wellington.
  • Justice and Electoral Select Committee (2005) Inquiry into the 2004 Local Authority Elections, available from www.parliament.govt.nz
  • Local Government Commission (2008) Review of the Local Government Act 2002 and the Local Electoral Act 200, available from www.lgc.govt.nz


[2] The overall average voter turnout for Canada could not be obtained, due to lack of reliable figures available from provincial authorities for many of the municipalities. British Columbia has been selected because its population is similar to that of New Zealand (4.5 million), and the provincial authority had data available regarding the average voter turnout for municipalities within the province.

Date updated: 5 November 2015