On Saturday, September 23, New Zealanders will go to the polls and vote for the 52nd Parliament. Well, some of us will. Probably fewer than did three years ago.
Declining voter turnout has become the canary in the political coalmine: an indication that something is wrong with our democracy. Once upon a golden age turnout was routinely in the 80 to 90 per cent range.
That began to change in the 1970s when the emergence of new social movements, disaffection with governments’ inability to tackle gnarly economic and social issues, and the erosion of traditional ties to the two major parties began to chip away at turnout.
By the time of the last general election we had reached the point where nearly 23 per cent of registered voters did not vote, and a further 252,581 eligible voters did not even enrol.
Turnout in 2014 was the lowest of any election held under the universal franchise except for the the one we had three years earlier, at which only 74 per cent of enrolled voters made it to the booths. And it’s not looking that flash this year, either: the registration data show that just over 349,000 eligible voters have yet to enrol.
Broadly speaking, those who are quietly shuffling away from electoral politics tend to be Maori, people without work or on low incomes, and members of some recent migrant communities (especially those from nations without long-standing democratic norms and conventions).
Crucially – because age cuts right across every socio-cultural category – the trend is perhaps most pronounced amongst young people. In 2014 only 75 per cent of eligible voters aged 18 to 24 enrolled, and one third of those who did enrol did not vote at all. (So far, 65 per cent of eligible voters in this cohort have registered for this year’s election.) Roughly the same figures applied for those between the ages of 25 to 29 and they weren’t that much better for people aged between 30 to 34.
The turnout at the last election amongst those aged 18 to 29 was less than 50 per cent.
In short, an entire generation is at risk of being lost to politics. If this trend continues, shortly the only people standing outside polling booths will be elderly.
Why might someone choose not to exercise this most fundamental of citizenship rights? The standard explanation explains non-voting as an individual deficit: too lazy, too apathetic, too busy on Facebook. Conveniently, this approach ignores some of the compelling and entirely rational reasons people might opt out of the electoral game.
Above all, if you live a life of poverty, ill health or marginalisation as a result of successive governments’ policies, might you not at some point be tempted not to vote? If your interests, your wellbeing and your aspirations are routinely ignored in public policy decisions, might it not at some point make a sort of sense to simply step away?
Possibly, and yet declining turnout matters. At the most obvious level, political disengagement does not stop politics: governments continue to make decisions that affect lives whether or not people vote. It also matters because we achieve more informed, more just, and more durable decisions when all voices are heard in the public conversation.
Imagine what sort of policy course we might chart as a nation were those who are most affected by housing unaffordability and current superannuation policy were to make their views felt through the electoral process. Instead, many of those people will not vote on September 23, and policy inequities that disproportionately affect the young and the impoverished will likely endure.
Perhaps most concerning of all, there is the risk that over time political disengagement erodes the legitimacy of the entire political system such that, when the populist stars align, we find ourselves caught up in the sorts of intolerant, bigoted and anti-democratic politics we see being played out in parts of Europe and North America. When that happens, some of the voices that are silent now may be making a very great deal of noise indeed.
Richard Shaw is a Professor of Politics and the Director – Bachelor of Arts (External Connections) at Massey University.