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voter turnout
September 9, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Electile Dysfunction

On election day 2011, Sam awoke in the early afternoon, and decided to play video games with what remained of the day. This was not a first. In the suburbs around him, thousands of people ventured out into a sun-drenched Wellington, but Sam stayed put. He had enrolled to vote, yes, had gone through all the necessary forms, and knew that the election was on that day, but had decided to remain at home.

But then, if Sam had voted, it wouldn’t have made any difference. 2.2 million people voted in the 2011 election. National won 443,000 votes more than Labour did. Each non-electorate seat cost around 17,000 party votes for the Green Party. Sam lives in a very safe Labour electorate. Even if Sam was particularly interested in the electoral-system referendum that piggybacked onto the 2011 election, his vote would have had no effect. Sam had better odds of being hit by a car on his way to the voting booth than his vote mattering in any way.

Only, Sam wasn’t alone. 31 per cent of voting-age New Zealanders didn’t make the effort in 2011. That’s, as the Labour leadership contenders keep asserting, 800,000 people who didn’t attempt to have any say in who should lead the country that they live in, who should write the laws that they live by, or set the taxes that they pay. Eep.

That’s the heart of the voting paradox—it’s incredibly unlikely that your individual vote will matter, but if everyone accepts that reasoning, nobody will vote at all, which would matter a whole lot.

Sam’s ballot-skipping isn’t exactly surprising. Young people are generally less likely to vote. The actual numbers are a bit murky, since the Electoral Commission doesn’t record that kind of data to respect privacy, but for 22 per cent of the non-voters surveyed just after the election, 2011 was the first time they were eligible. Of those who were eligible at the time, 62 per cent of the 2011 non-voters didn’t vote in 2008 either. All this, and the survey only asks those who actually enrolled. 18–24 year olds represent just 13 per cent of the voting-age population, but nearly half (47 per cent) of those unenrolled. Sam swings a bit left, living in Wellington and all, and doesn’t have a degree in anything—two factors that further decrease the odds of him voting. Sam claims, like two per cent of the non-voters surveyed, that he didn’t vote because he saw no meaningful difference between the parties.

As the years tick on, we are seeing more and more Sams. To find another election with turnout as low as 2011, one has to venture into the 1800s. The last three elections are some of the worst on record, and there’s been a noted decline since the 1960s, throughout New Zealand and much of the Western world, from the ~90 per cent turnout rate in the 1950s through to the ~70 per cent of the new millenium.

People vote and don’t vote for a million different reasons. It’s a huge social experiment with little control of outside factors, where a few degrees’ difference in weather could change who leads a nation of millions. But the only way to reverse the downward trend is to understand who is voting less, and why. That is, if you see low voter turnout as a problem at all.

*  *  *

As political messages go, “more people should vote” is a pretty safe bet. It wasn’t always. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated two days after promising African-Americans voting rights; 55 years later, 33 American women demanding the right to vote were imprisoned and brutally beaten over 60 days. Times have, luckily, changed.

Voting in New Zealand is reasonably easy. And, if you’ve made it a frictionless process that anyone can engage in, then what else, short of forcing people to vote, can you really do? John Key trotted out the same old adage after the 2011 election, along with many others: “If you don’t vote, then you can’t complain.” The statement has a nice simplicity to it, and it certainly sounds sensible.

And it would be, if it was that simple. It isn’t. Those who don’t vote are not spread evenly among the population. Certain groups are much less likely to vote, and thus less likely to influence politicians. This is why you can’t touch superannuation without an uproar but you can play with the Student Allowance all you like—the elderly vote, young people often don’t. “It is important to have as much equality in participation as possible,” explains Dr Hilde Coffé, a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Victoria, because “if there is inequality there, there is inequality in policy-making.” And, whether you would like it to or not, government policy affects each and every one of us. Having a say in it can be pretty useful, even if you don’t buy into the democratic ideal.

Turnout is more than just an ideal though: it’s a strategy. “In general, lower-class people tend to vote more left-wing,” says Coffé, “and we know that they are also less likely to go voting.” It’s hard to prove such claims completely, given the secrecy of the ballot and just how many people vote, but there is definitely supporting research. A 2012 paper in Comparative Political Studies asserts that increasing income inequality generally decreases turnout, but a strong left wing can combat this decrease. Politicians from the left agree. Jacinda Ardern, Labour’s spokesperson for Social Development, sees “a considerable chunk of the non-vote” as “people who would otherwise vote for parties like the Labour Party”. Holly Walker, the Green Party’s spokesperson for Electoral Reform, agrees, “but it’s not an absolute… the more we see this trend towards non-voting continue, the more diverse this group will be.”

The trend is key. We’ve always had young people and we’ve always had impoverished people—so why are turnout rates declining so dramatically? There’s an easy response that half of you are muttering under your breath right now—apathy!—but it isn’t quite that simple. “A lot of people talk about youth apathy and voter apathy, but that framework and that way of looking at it puts all the fault on young people,” explains Walker, “where, actually, we’ve come out of 20 years of neoliberal economic reform and individualism, which has encouraged a whole generation of people to think very much in terms of ‘me’.” Atomised individuals are less likely to buy into party ideology, but that doesn’t make them less interested in politics. “Young people may not be interested in electoral politics,” asserts Coffé, but “it’s all more about issues… you see it in different ways of participation.” Certainly, issue-based campaigns have been full of young people lately, particularly, Walker points out, Marriage Equality and Generation Zero. Joining a group can be “anathema for young people”. We are interested in change that we can enact straight away, not change via voting for a party that might one day get elected and might one day push through a bill we like. Thus, politics aren’t the problem—party politics are.

This doesn’t quite explain the whole story. Young people aren’t the only people not voting in droves, what’s everyone else’s excuse? Coffé believes competitiveness plays a part. “What I hear about in 2011 is that, ‘We all knew National were going to win!’” Indeed, eight per cent of non-voters surveyed, a sizable swath, didn’t vote because “it wouldn’t make a difference”. And you can understand this a bit—the polls were predicting a solid win for National—but if 800,000 more people had voted, the maths would look completely different, and under MMP, a whole handful of seats would become competitive. Turnout was fairly low in the 2002 election, too, where it looked certain that Labour would effortlessly beat National.

Research shows competitiveness is definitely a factor, and it especially affects young people. “When elections are close, as many new voters cast ballots as ‘old’ ones,” suggests Jack Vowles in a working paper on the 2011 election, “but when elections are not close, new voters are most adversely affected.” Of course, we don’t vote in two-party elections. “The public may tend to underestimate the closeness of elections,” writes Vowles, “because of a focus on the two main parties and consequently less attention to coalition options.” Both Labour and National encourage this, so as to maximise their own possible share of the vote.

*  *  *

This decline isn’t going on in quiet. The less people vote, the less legitimate our Western supremacy narrative is. Our ego can’t take that kind of pain right now. But with so many possible causes—late-game polling, atomisation, income inequality, complex electoral systems, a distrust of politicians in general—and a trend that is challenging democracies all over the world, where do you even start?

Then again, it isn’t always politically advantageous to encourage high turnout. American far-right Republicans are in the process of suppressing the left with voter ID laws and the like, which disproportionately discourage minorities, who generally vote left, from voting. They hide behind “combating voter fraud”.

Closer to home, the National Party has no stated policy on increasing democratic participation, and never really mentions the topic. However, Minister of Justice Judith Collins is introducing a bill to Parliament which allows for online voter enrolment. Collins agrees that turnout is low, and claims that “the Government wants to encourage as many people as possible to vote,” but “not all of the factors which affect turnout can be controlled by the Government or the Electoral Commission.”

Some work can be done. Collins points to the work the Electoral Commission is doing, and particularly highlights civics education as an avenue to pursue. The Government wants to encourage as many people as possible to vote,” she claims, so “ the Government will be encouraging the [Electoral] Commission to continue its public education programmes and also to work with the Ministry of Education to improve the Commission’s excellent education programmes for schools.” MMP is certainly a complex system, so perhaps greater education could reverse the trend. Then again, the United States has a rigorous civic-education curriculum, and their turnout is far worse than ours. Coffé sees civic education as “very important,” but “ it isn’t the the magic solution… studies are mixed on its effects.”

There is always the nuclear option—compulsory voting. In Australia, you are legally obliged to vote. If you refuse to, you can be fined $20, unless you have a good explanation. You can still ‘spoil’ your vote if you wish, filling it out incorrectly and thus making it unusable. Australia has an official turnout rate consistently in the 90s, surely proof that a system like this is effective.

But nobody is really talking about it in New Zealand. Coffé acknowledges that it would probably increase turnout, but doubts New Zealand, or many other countries, would go for it. “Australia enacted it at the beginning of the [20th] century—times are very different now.” It’s a question of personal liberties now, and the right to reject our form of democracy altogether has become sacred.

Then there’s online voting. While Collins’ electoral amendment bill only allows for online enrolment in the general election, it does make room for a trail of online voting in the 2016 local-body elections. Local-body elections have much worse turnout than general elections, with only 41 per cent of Wellington voting last time, but they are also much more flexible, and thus make an excellent testing ground. Walker supports the changes, and thinks they will help with turnout, but not immensely. “People kind of see online voting as this panacea to turnout, and it’s not true.”

The onus isn’t just on the government. It’s in the best interest of parties, particularly parties on the left, to mobilise their vote. They employ a variety of methods, from simple pamphlets to telephone calls and door-knocking. Use of the telephone to elicit votes dropped in 2011, according to Vowles, yet it increases the likelihood that an individual will vote by eight per cent. Vowles’ research shows that face-to-face communication, while on the rise, had a slight negative effect on turnout, a result he blames on either sampling error or too precise targeting—if you were only talking to those who really didn’t want to vote, you were unlikely to change their mind.

Precise targeting is on the rise internationally. Political parties are always working with limited resources, so the less time spent trying to convince people who will never vote for their party the better. Obama’s campaign teams have perfected this method, using gigantic amounts of publicly available data to find the exact type of voter who would probably support Obama but would probably not vote without a little prodding. It worked in 2008 and 2012, spectacularly, with minorities making up a larger portion of the vote than ever before, befuddling Republican analysts who had predicted a larger white vote.

So, perhaps late next year, someone will knock on Sam’s door. They might guess, quite correctly, that he is somewhere to the left of the National Party, and attempt to win his vote for the Shane Jones/Winston Peters ticket. Only, their effort will go in vain—Sam has already decided that he will definitely be voting in 2014. If only all the other Sams would too.


Voting Around the World:


Description of voting methods/barriers: Switzerland elect their leaders fairly normally, but any citizen can challenge any law and call a referendum on it, resulting in quasi-direct democracy, where citizens are expected to vote around four times a year.

Voter turnout: 49.2% (averaged) on referendums in 2011; 48.5% parliamentary in 2011.


Description of voting methods/barriers: Similar to NZ, except the Prime Minister is appointed by the monarch, with the approval of the parliament to serve a four-year term.

Voter turnout: 76.4% in 2009.

Interesting fact: while the King chooses the PM, he is not considered a citizen and so cannot vote.


Description of voting methods/barriers: Ballot papers are distributed by each party, with their party name printed on them—you turn in the one you want to vote for. You can also write in or select a candidate, or use a blank official ballot paper.

Voter turnout: 84.63% in 2010.

United States

Description of voting methods/barriers: A suffocating two-party system, gerrymandering of House districts, and unlimited campaign funding via Super PACs. The usual!

Voter turnout: 57.5% in 2012 (presidential).


Description of voting methods/barriers: Violent intimidation, many claims of fraud.

Voter turnout: 40.81% in 2008.


Description of voting methods/barriers: Compulsory voting, with a $20 fine imposed unless a reason for not voting is given.

Voter turnout: 93.22% in 2010.


Description of voting methods/barriers: Compulsory voting, with passport removal as a penalty.

Voter turnout: 94.55% in 2009.


Description of voting methods/barriers: Well, which government’s elections are you voting for?

Voter turnout: 95.86% in the last Presidential Referendum in 2007. Things have changed a little since then.


Description of voting methods/barriers: The Guardian Council disqualifies candidates who don’t fit their particular interpretation of Islam, thousands of opposition activists, academics and journalists are imprisoned, and the unelected Ayatollah ultimately controls everything anyway; but otherwise, elections are completely free!

Voter turnout: 72.77% in 2013 (presidential).

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