Some of the people have voted

The people have voted.

At least some of them have, but not as many as some think should have, following a trend of declining participation in the triennial elections.

Local body elections have long attracted fewer voters than parliamentary ones and this year’s turn out generally showed a continued decline in the numbers of people opting to vote.

The reasons for this are many.

Postal voting was supposed to have helped stem if not reverse the decline. There’s no way of knowing if turnout would be just as bad if people had to turn up at polling booths but I am not a fan of voting by mail.

A secret ballot is a fundamental part of participatory democracy and it is too easy for people to cast other people’s votes or to use force or coercion over how votes are cast by people under their control.

I don’t know anyone in the latter camp but know several in the former, including family members who filled in the form for their mother who had just died, one who voted for a parent who had moved into a rest home but whose vote came to her former address and others who have voted for family members overseas.

Then there’s the problem with the postal system. Those of us with Rural Delivery are able to leave items to be posted in our mail boxes, those in town have to find a mail box. They aren’t nearly as numerous or conveniently located as they were in the past and once posted it’s no longer possible to guarantee an envelope will be delivered in a very few days.

Electronic voting is an alternative but I have reservations about that too. Several recent breakdowns in internet security in government departments give me no confidence that electronic voting would be secure and there’s the same potential for force, coercion or voting for other people that occur with postal voting.

It is possible to download a voting paper, vote and upload it for parliamentary elections if you’re out of the country. I happened to run into a couple of friends in Argentina the day before the last election who hadn’t voted. They were keen to do it electronically and I was able to witness their forms as a JP but it was quite a convoluted process and not one I’d recommend as first choice.

My preference would be a return to polling booths, in convenient locations, open for at least a couple of weeks before polls close.

But postal voting isn’t the only deterrent to casting votes in local body, council size is another.

When a merger of councils in the greater Auckland area was mooted I thought bigger would be better. It isn’t. In contradiction to the promises of lower costs and greater accountability with a single, large council, rates and other fees have climbed and accountability has declined. Too much power resides in the mayor and it is harder for people to know their councillors get traction for local concerns and grasp city-wide issues.

While Auckland is the only super city, mergers have made other councils bigger. Dunedin covers a large geographical area.  People in areas that were covered by smaller borough or county councils are outnumbered many times by those in the urban centre which, even with a ward system, can lead to them feeling their votes won’t influence much if anything.

That smaller district councils usually get a better turn out than those for bigger districts and cities gives credence to the view that bigger isn’t better. It is much easier to know councillors and keep abreast of issues in small areas. That might give weight to the argument against further mergers, but the costs of running councils and carrying out all their obligations would impose too great a rates burden on smaller councils if they demerged.

Another reason for disengagement with local democracy is that coverage of council business has fallen victim to cost-pressures which reduce coverage in the media. That makes it harder to stay informed about what council’s are doing and have enough information about the ability and contribution of councillors.

Social media, if used wisely and well, can help inform people about issues and allow them to interact with councillors and candidates but it can’t replace good coverage and informed analysis.

Though it’s usually much better than the paragraph of self-promotion by candidates in the booklet that accompanies voting papers. That is no basis for making an informed decision and meet-the-candidates meetings aren’t much better if the numbers standing allow too little time to listen to and question them.

The decline in participation as votes trickled in prompted calls for various ways to reverse that.

But as Not PC said last week:

There are many entirely valid reasons in every election for people choosing not to fill in and return voting papers. But that’s what they choose to do: not to fill out and return them. It’s their choice — and not a single cent of government money should be spent dissuading them of that choice.

Because that would be an affront to democracy.

If we’re free to vote we’re also free to not vote and anything that seeks to increase engagement and participation must not change that nor make quantity a replacement for quality.

It’s better to have a few who choose to vote than many who are forced to.

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