Comment: Local elections – Voter turnout is a joke. Here’s how to fix it

NZ elections voting turnout

So, the local council elections are over, and in most places turnout is down yet again.

It’s not good in a democracy to have less than a third of the population deciding who runs the local government. And while they may not be the most exciting among elections, they have a big impact on local services, town planning, transport, recycling and the environment, and of course the rates bill.

Anyone living or breathing in a community should care. So, why don’t they?

One thing is clear, the message of ‘why vote?’ is not cutting through, and then that’s compounded with how we are expected to vote.As a marketer, I find government are blind to basic marketing principles in getting people motivated. It strikes me that the whole system is pretty broken and has been ignored by central government, which in turn may currently be running a bit gun-shy of new ideas like online voting after the census debacle.

Indeed, the census should be filed away in the ‘institutional stupidity’ section. Who thought a hard shift from having people come to your door to deliver and take away your census form, to 100 per cent online, was a really brilliant idea? That fiasco was really a dry run for what would come later with Spark Sport.

But the problem with the local elections, with the possible exception of regional New Zealand where local issues can be the most pressing thing, is that their value is not top of mind and not really made important. This is a failing of central government, which needs to own it.

So, let’s list all the broken bits that undermine voter engagement.

First, the time frame is all wrong. Billboards go up weeks early for some unfathomable reason, giving the sense the election has been going on for months even before it starts. This shouldn’t be allowed.

Second, the voting period is a month which anyone with a passing understanding of direct response techniques could tell you is a disaster for inspiring people to return things. It’s far too long; urgency is vital.

Third, now that consumer engagement with mail has dropped so much, many people don’t ever go near a mailbox. It’s not habitual – expecting people to behave differently in order to vote is a big ask when engagement is low to start with.

Fourth, did anyone look at the voting form and think it was easy? In Auckland, 23 candidates for a Health Board most people don’t understand, none of them easily labelled as ‘Labour’, ‘National’ or whatever. Thumbing through a little book (actually, a useful thing) to determine the order of 23 people you have never heard of. The Health Board vote at the end of the form must cripple some voter intention.

Fifth, getting real with offering many ways to cast a vote makes sense, but the alternative to posting it was to go to a library. Who goes to libraries these days? This is a voting system rooted in the 1950s, not the 21st century.

So, what to do?

Central government needs to advertise the point of local elections – on TV, online, and in other media, at the start of the voting period. Sell the value of councils.

Shorten the timeframe – one week should be ample, what’s so complicated? We can elect a government in a day. Maybe it could be that simple at a local level too. Why don’t we just go to the polls?

There should be no candidate advertising until three weeks before. It’s totally unnecessary.

We should be offered more ways to vote – offer online voting, put election boxes where people go (eg supermarkets – mooted for the general election – and petrol stations) as well as mail back and the library (for people over 85).

Simplify the form – make it clearer. You don’t need to vote in everything so the election of mayor and councilors aren’t derailed by the confusion of the health board for instance. The forms aren’t terrible, but are still complex for people who are not natural form fillers.

Review the principles for standing – why do so many Labour or National candidates stand as independents or under weird alternative grouping names? This should be reviewed and if necessary groupings mandated to properly associate themselves with their parties. It helps simplify people’s voting thought processes.

Finally, use proper market research and data insight to understand who does and doesn’t vote, and apply this to specific messaging and additional support.

Without an overhaul, who thinks anything will change? That said, it’s also about the government getting the right advice, and the political will to do something about it. The ministry responsible needs to do more than hiring a few marketing gurus – the system has to be totally revamped, and it has to be treated seriously and made serious to the public.

Otherwise, we will be sitting at 25 per cent turnout next time.

– Ben Goodale is an award-winning New Zealand advertising expert.

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald, 12 October 2019.