Wednesday, October 09, 2019

No-one cares about local government

Yesterday was the last day for (reliably) posting your vote away in local body elections. Turnouts are mostly much lower than the equivalent time last year (Palmerston North is down 2.3%), and so naturally people are pushing their online-voting snake oil again. Because the online census worked so well, lets do our local body elections the same way! Except of course online voting is still fundamentally insecure (see also: XKCD), and that hasn't changed. But companies - like electionz - would get to make money out of it, so they still keep pushing it.

Meanwhile, local body turnouts have been low for years - around 50% in 1989 - and while it has dropped since then, it was hardly stellar to begin with. Which suggests that while there's the overall trend of declining participation also seen in national elections, there's something else going on with local body which is nothing to do with the voting method. And there's an obvious answer: no-one cares. And its easy to see why: what local government does is mostly invisible. Add to that media coverage focused on Keeping Rates Low which automatically alienates anyone who doesn't own a house, "conflict of interest" rules which prevent councillors from actually representing their voters, and a parade of cookie-cutter dead white male candidates who alienate anyone who isn't like them, and it is easy to see why people just decide its not worth bothering with. These people have nothing to do with our lives, so we try and ignore them (until we can't). And I say all that as someone who does care, who thinks that local government decisions matter. But the institution doesn't make it easy to believe that.

(DHBs are even worse: a "local body" whose decisions are in practice entirely dictated by central government, and which seems to exist solely as a blame-sink for the Minister. Why vote for the monkey rather than the organ-grinder?)

People vote when they care. If we want people to vote, local government needs to be something people can care about. And that's going to require bigger changes than how we vote (though changing to universal STV, so non-Boomers can actually get represented, would be a start).