Making local govt elections less local

An inquiry into local body elections will ask if getting central government involved could improve them, Dileepa Fonseka reports

Central government could boost woeful voter turnout at council elections by playing a larger role but such a move would take several years, the Government says.

The Justice Select Committee is courting submissions on this topic as part of a recently announced review of last year’s local body elections. Submissions close on February 29. 

Among its areas of focus will be a proposal to have the Electoral Commission - not councils - run local body elections. 

Average voter turnout at the local body elections last year was 42 percent with turnout lower in cities and higher in rural and provincial areas. 

The 2017 general election cost $35 million for the Electoral Commission to run and turnout was 79 percent across all enrolled voters

Average turnout at the local body elections was 42 percent. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Unlike national elections, which are run by the commission, it is up to each individual council to run its local body elections. 

In practice this means the vast bulk are run by two companies: Election Services and Electionz.com - which many councils pay to count votes and enforce election rules. 

“With regard to online voting it does mean you’d have a body which would have the financial capacity to properly investigate and manage it.”

Local Government New Zealand principal policy advisor Mike Reid said LGNZ didn't have a formal position on handing elections over to the Electoral Commission but is “sympathetic” to it. 

“The Electoral Commission could play a much bigger role. At the moment its legislation stops it from focusing on local elections so it’s not a choice.

“One of the problems we’ve always had is having effective national publicity campaigns so we’ve always thought the Electoral Commission could probably play a decent role there, as it does in parliamentary elections.”

Reid said a takeover of local government elections by the commission could also open the door to online voting and allow for more consistent enforcement of campaigning rules. 

Private companies would likely continue to be contracted by the Electoral Commission to count the votes but it would take on other aspects of the election, Reid said.

“Things like the interpretation of rules: whether an ad by the local council which features the local mayor is breaking the rules or not.

“That’s the kind of question that certainly candidates would be looking for advice [on] and that’s often a question where you find advice will vary around the country.”

A Government spokesperson said any move to centralise local government elections would take several years.

“If responsibility for local elections is centralised at some future time, that would allow reassessment of the risks and benefits of options to support voter participation at the local level while safeguarding the democratic process.”

Online voting

Bringing the resources of the Electoral Commission and central government to local body elections could also open the door to an online voting trial or investigation, Reid said.

“With regard to online voting it does mean you’d have a body which would have the financial capacity to properly investigate and manage it.

“The big issue we have in our sector is most councils are too small to do that.”

Reid said an initiative to allow online voting at the last local body elections in Auckland never got even to the proposal stage because of the costs attached. 

“In the end they looked at the cost and balked, at the same time the GCSB had come out and started expressing concerns about security from a geopolitical point of view.”

Those concerns were noted in an inquiry into the 2016 local body elections which said:

“The GCSB made very clear that it has ongoing concerns about the security implications of proposals to pilot or introduce online voting for local body elections.

“Manual voting is much less susceptible to compromise, and administrators of local elections do not have the support that the Electoral Commission does, including from the GCSB.”

The postal ballot

Currently councils can decide if voters cast their ballots online, in a booth or by postal ballot. 

Booth voting was tried by Hutt City Council in 1992 and resulted in a lower turnout than the previous election. 

Without exception, councils have chosen to go with postal ballots rather than online voting or the style of personal, ballot box voting commonly seen in national elections. 

The postal ballot has come in for criticism this year. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

But the use of mail-in ballots attracted criticism this year after a nationwide decline in the number of post boxes and concerns with the postal service. 

Fewer people are using the postal service to send letters. The number being sent decreased by 12 percent in 2018 and 15 percent in 2019. 

And between 2012 and 2018 the mailboxes for posting those letters were being removed from Auckland’s streets at an average rate of one per week according to Stuff

It was concerns about the long-term viability of the postal service that caused LGNZ to back calls for online voting during a review of the 2016 local body elections. 

With the decline of mailboxes councils are putting out ballot boxes for voters to slot in their votes. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

NZ Post general manager of mail Matt Geor said over 3.2m voting papers were sent out to nearly 2m households last year. 

Geor said the service has five delivery days to get voting packs out and noted it met that target for “almost all” of them.

“Due to the scale of this mail out, and the nature of logistics, there can be minor issues from time-to-time.”

“During this time, we encouraged all New Zealanders to contact their electoral officer if they did not receive their voting pack by September 25.”

Geor also said NZ Post carried out a national analysis into whether there was a correlation between the number of post boxes in communities and lower voter turnout.

Across local body elections after 2013 the study shows voter turnout rising in some years when there were large drops in the number of "mailbox receivers". 

“The simple answer was that there was no correlation.”

A study into the number of "street receiver" post boxes and their correlation to declining voter turnout found no correlation between the two. Photo: NZ Post

Reid said LGNZ had not observed major problems with the delivery of mail during last year’s elections and noted that councils paid a fee to NZ Post to put on more staff during election time. 

But he said reported delays in getting ballots out to people, effectively reducing the window of time they had to vote, was of concern.

“The gap between getting the papers and voting - theoretically it’s a three week window [but] probably for a lot of people it was only about 10 days.”

Whether turnout would increase under a different voting system is a moot point, especially given international trends. 

The excitement surrounding Auckland’s first 'supercity' election in 2010 boosted turnout by 12 percent but it returned to pre-supercity levels just one election cycle later. 

Reid said turnout at New Zealand’s local elections had been relatively consistent for the past three elections - around the 40 percent mark. This is broadly in-line with Anglo-Saxon countries like the UK where money on social services tended to be spent at a national level than a local one.

In places like Switzerland where local bodies had more money to spend, turnout was actually higher at local body elections and lower for national elections, he noted.

“Where you’ve got a small local government and a really big central government it makes sense that people will put the effort and put the time into voting for where all the taxes go rather than a place which gets hardly any taxes.”

Role of council staff in the spotlight

The inquiry will also investigate the role of council staff members in local body elections - less than a year after the Local Government Act was amended to expand their role.

And it will cover issues over “decisions [by council staff] to release or not release information or any public statements that may be construed to affect the election outcome”. 

A dispute around the proper role of council CEOs arose in Porirua in the lead-up to the election. 

Porirua council CEO Wendy Walker attracted the ire of then-Mayor Tana for her decision to email councillors informing them that she had contacted Police over his fuel card transactions

Mike Reid says voter turnout for local body elections is low around the world in countries where central government plays a larger role. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The email leaked days before the election - a contest Tana lost by 397 votes. 

Tana argued Walker should have waited until after the election to raise the issue. 

A law change in March 2019 gave council CEOs the role of “facilitating and fostering representative and substantial elector participation in elections”.

In Hamilton this change allowed the council there to spearhead attempts to run election events and debates - nudging turnout up from 33.6 percent to 39.4 percent.

Reid said LGNZ didn’t have an issue with the conduct of council officers during the 2019 election and said the Porirua case was one of councillors leaking to the media rather than a case of election interference by a council employee.

“At any stage, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s [an election] run by the Electoral Commission or run by johnny-come-lately, information can get out to the public which might not be good for a councillor.”

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