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Why council election non-voters are the majority

Updated: May 4, 2020

Hamilton City Council Chief Executive, Richard Briggs, recently claimed our system of local government elections was “demonstrably broken”. He’s advocating for greater community engagement. Fair enough.

And Hamilton City Council worked hard via social media, meetings etc to boost voter turnout this October.. The result? Voter returns went up from 33.6% in 2016 to 39.43% in last month’s Council elections. So, reasonable progress. But the majority still weren’t buying it.

Briggs is now calling on local government to “step up” and look at electoral changes for the Council elections in 2022. But he’s got no firm view on what “stepping up” looks like. I’m not surprised.

Why? It’s complex and we need to really understand why people are motivated to vote.

I voted but I’m in the odd one out

First to all, let me say, I voted in my council elections and took great interest in them. But look at it this way: I’m the odd one out. The majority of people went about their business during the voting period and relegated their voting papers to the cat litter tray or rubbish bin. A few like me were very interested; another group was interested enough to vote; the rest didn’t bother. Voters were the minority. Maybe we’re the weirdos.

My issue with Briggs is this: he’s exhorting the majority to act in a way he thinks they should. Voting is good! Apathy is bad! But people aren’t interested in being worthy. After all, I’m totally apathetic about horse racing, cars and weather forecasts. For others this is their life. Exhorting me to be interested in the 2.30 at Trentham would be a waste of time.

People vote because they’ll get something for themselves

What’s missing from this debate is some basic understanding of why people vote.

People vote if it’s clear to them what their vote will get for them. For many people, they’re faced with a dull booklet with pages of candidates saying they want to offer their experience, passion and energy, care deeply about our people, and have worked hard to get to understand the issues. (All direct quotes.) Worthy but dull. What will a vote for them get for a voter?

Even I’m fully aware my vote will have little influence on actual Council decisions. My new local councillor is one of many. He’ll be just one vote and may be on the outer or inner circle of Council power. But I don’t have any control over that. So, logically my vote won’t influence much at all. So, I’m odd to bother voting

Emotions motivate people to vote

But that’s the other issue: we don’t vote logically; we vote emotionally. You may persuade by reason, but you motivate people to act through emotion. Asking people to carry out their civic duty isn’t even that logical and totally drained of emotion. So, not surprisingly the majority aren’t motivated to do it.

At national level, it’s different. We feel we know far more about our political leaders. At the last General Election, Labour voters felt they had some emotional payback for voting Labour: a fresh and exciting new Prime Minister. And they felt good about it.

Local government services are a backdrop to people’s lives

Lastly, of course the services local government provides are important. But they’re a backdrop to my life. Yes, I expect water to come out of my tap. Yes, I expect my rubbish to be collected on a Monday. Yes, I expect the local park to have play equipment. But I expect them to be there. And it’s unlikely my vote will change the variety of the local play equipment or rubbish recycling policy. And I reckon the non-voting majority feel the same. They just expect basic services to be there. And they’re not emotionally invested in them once every three years.

Like so many things in life, voting in local elections is complex. So far, I can’t see any emotional reasons to motivate the non-voting majority. To make progress, potential voters would need to feel their vote meant something. They’d easily relate voting to themselves and their lives; and candidates would need to spend huge amounts more than they do now to connect emotionally with voters.

Oh and by the way The New Zealand Bird of the Year poll closes on 10 November. And I won’t be voting.


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