Democracy Week

Politicians must convince us of their worth

The Electoral Commission and various volunteer '‘get out the vote'’ groups are increasingly busy encouraging people to vote in the coming general election.

Some politicians and observers have criticised the Electoral Commission for '‘not doing enough'’ after recent elections, at which turnout has gone down. But it is political parties that have the biggest incentives and the greatest responsibilities to encourage people to vote for them. It is their job to engage and if possible inspire. More attention should be focussed on their activities in communicating with voters.

Research tells us that people will turn out to vote if they feel that their vote will count, if an election is close, and if political parties offer policies that matter to people and that are sufficiently different to provide a choice. People also need to have confidence that political parties have sufficiently competent leadership to do what they say they will do.

Parties and politicians also need to engage people's emotions, too, and their senses of identity. This means having leaders who can communicate effectively, and who can at their most effective moments generate real enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, the National Party says it will deliver for New Zealanders, which makes one think of Bill English driving a delivery van that roams the streets of suburbia. When led by Andrew Little, the Labour Party said it would offer "a fresh approach," a slogan that sounded stale at the outset and even more lame than Labour'’s 2014 slogan, "vote positive."

Jacinda Ardern’s rise to the leadership ironically makes the “'fresh”' slogan somewhat more meaningful, although she has announced it will be replaced. Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei has provoked the strongest emotions by her admission of historic benefit fraud, not necessarily to her advantage in the long run, although there has been a poll boost for her party. Winston Peters sticks to his tried but not necessarily true appeals that are constructed from a socially-conservative vision of New Zealand identity.

Below the surface of these general public images, a lot more is going on. Political parties around the world are using information technology to target voters that may be convinced both to vote, and to vote for them. Parties employ or contract data analysts who bring new skills and new strategies to election campaigns.

Parties have electronic access to the electoral rolls and their contained information about age, occupation, and location. Ethnicities can be estimated from explicit data on Māori descent, and less certain but normally reliable inferences about gender and other ethnicities can be based on names.

Drawing on the rolls, direct mail to particular categories of voters has been used since the 1980s. The rolls provide information that helps parties identify where to campaign most effectively, and how. Census data cannot be linked to individuals, but can be broken down at the local level, making possible increasingly sophisticated statistical analysis that can be used to estimate the likely political loyalties of potential voters, as well as how likely they are to vote. This informs parties' local campaigns, making it possible for them to seek to mobilise votes in areas where they can be most effective.

There is no excuse for anyone not to vote, unless they genuinely do not care about the future of their country.

New Zealand political parties will be making much greater use of social media in 2017 than in the past. Political parties have the same access to new sources of information about individuals as do businesses who advertise their products on web platforms such as Facebook. Many Facebook users will have investigated their privacy settings. It is possible to prevent information about one’s likes and dislikes, the postings one shares, and with whom, to be provided to third parties. But to do so means the advertisements one is shown will no longer be tailored to one'’s Facebook behaviour.

On balance, if people have to put up with advertisements they will prefer them to be relevant, so most people tend not to choose maximum privacy.

If they can afford it, political parties, like businesses, have the same ability as businesses to can ask Facebook or Google to target their advertising to particular users. Businesses and political parties may also be able to use data that can be purchased about patterns of overall internet use among different sorts of people. With this, they could potentially further fine-tune the advertising and the target groups to which they ask Facebook and Google to post their advertising. Different appeals and messages can go to different groups. How much New Zealand political parties will use these tools will depend on their budgets and the analytical skills of those who work for them.

The potential of such tools is not only to send targeted positive messages to attract voters, but also to send targeted negative messages to put voters people off voting for other political parties or even to discourage people them from voting at all. How much the parties '‘go negative'’ and how much these messages are explicitly targeted remains to be seen as the campaign rolls out.

The bigger picture is one of seeking to inspire confidence and presenting what parties stand for in ways that attract votes: a big challenge for the opposition parties but one that will become easier when the campaign begins and they receive more attention and media coverage. Use of targeted methods via social media will matter, but probably only on the margins. But margins matter. Will National with its current support partners secure another parliamentary majority? On current polling, this could come down to a small number of votes. If the election is as close, in these terms, as many expect, there is no excuse for anyone not to vote, unless of course they genuinely do not care about the future of their country.

The discussion ‘‘Political campaigning: News feeds vs newspapers’’, featuring pollster and Kiwiblog editor David Farrar, novelist and Dim-Post blogger Danyl Mclauchlan, political analyst and blogger Rob Salmond, University of Auckland political marketing expert Associate Professor Jennifer Lees-Marshment and Victoria University of Wellington comparative politics expert Dr Kate McMillan (chair), is at Victoria on Thursday 3 August at 12.30pm, as part of the University’s Democracy Week.

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