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Bryce Edwards: Make NZ vote again

As part of Victoria University of Wellington's Democracy Week, Dr Bryce Edwards puts forward some of the main solutions for getting New Zealanders participating in elections again

I didn’t vote in the last general election and, although such behaviour is looked down upon by many in society, I was in clearly in good company. About 28 percent of New Zealanders who could have voted chose not to, for a wide variety of reasons. Yet in the past, New Zealand had much lower numbers of non-voters—typically less than 10 percent before the 1970s, when signs of large-scale voter disengagement began.

There are plenty of arguments to be made about whether it really matters if we vote. Declining voter turnout could mean people are content with politics, or perhaps apathetic. On the other hand, it could also be a sign of disillusionment and disenchantment with politics and a broken system requiring major change.

But assuming we want to have 100 percent voter turnout, how could an increase in voting be achieved? There are six options to consider.

Make NZ Vote Again #1: Online voting

Technology is liberating us and improving our lives in so many different areas, yet we still use pen and paper in old-fashioned voting booths in halls and schools. Surely we should be able to design a system that allows us to vote from the comfort of our homes? Many cyber security experts say the technology just isn’t yet robust enough to make this possible. And some suggest threats of hacking or invasion of privacy are intrinsic to digital voting.

Make NZ Vote Again #2: Civics education and information

There is no doubt there is a need for greater—or improved—information about the role of government, the voting process and candidate options in elections. This is fuelling greater demand for the formal introduction of civics education into the secondary schools curriculum. But who decides what students get taught about the political system? Are there dangers of state indoctrination?

Make NZ Vote Again #3: Compulsory voting

Some countries simply make it illegal not to vote—Australia is the best example. And the Labour Party has put forward this controversial fix, suggesting New Zealand could fine those who choose not to vote. But is this the most positive way to encourage participation?

Make NZ Vote Again #4: Payment for voting

Perhaps a more positive way to encourage electoral participation would be to use the carrot rather than the stick. Instead of fining those who don’t vote, money could be giving to those who do: $50 could be provided as a financial incentive for participation. But what impact could this have on the voting choices of those only voting for the money?

Make NZ Vote Again #5: Decrease the voting age to 16

The problem of low turnout is particularly bad among younger age groups. Some believe 18- to 20-year-olds are first having to vote at a very busy and unsettled stage in their life, and hence they often choose not to. It would be better, it is argued, to get them voting while they are still at school and at home. But there’s no real evidence to show this would work.

Make NZ Vote Again #6: None of the above

It’s possible none of the above options will fix the problem and the problem is far bigger than just requiring some technical fixes to the voting process. So perhaps we need bigger changes to the political system. In fact, maybe it’s the political parties and politicians that need to change how they operate. If the parties started offering policies and options that really engaged the public, then voting would naturally increase. Put simply, voters need to feel there is something worth voting for.

Which of these options would you vote for? Or are there better ones?

Dr Bryce Edwards will chair the discussion ‘Make NZ Vote Again, featuring Dr Kate McMillan, Megan Whelan and Professor John Dryzek, at Victoria University of Wellington on Tuesday 1 August at 12.30pm, as part of the University’s Democracy Week.

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