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Non-Voters: Democracy needs you to 'join in'

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

By Steve Taylor

As the 2014 Conservative Party candidate for New Lynn, I was surprised to learn that approximately 14,000 eligible voters chose not to vote in the 2011 General Election in the New Lynn electorate.

I have paused to consider that the reason for 26% of the New Lynn Electorate not voting in 2011 was because in the 51 years of New Lynn (in various forms) existing as a Labour-held electorate, it has never had a local representative.

That’s right: for 51 years, the Labour Party has "parachuted" Labour Party candidates into New Lynn, and the Labour Party candidates have "pretended" to have a local presence (the current incumbent, Labour Leader David Cunliffe, lives in Herne Bay).

The feedback I have been receiving as I meet with voters in New Lynn certainly affirms some resistance to this practice, with a preference for "a local representing the locals" resonating quite deeply with a number of them.

"How does one look after New Lynn, if one is not in New Lynn?" asked one.

"Before I help you, Mr Steve "Waitakere Man" Taylor, I need to know that you live in the Electorate - and if you do, then I am on board" said another.

Other local examples are illustrative of the same expectation: if you are going to represent us, then you need to be one of us.

It is certainly true that for some Electorates, having Electorate MP’s who do not live in the Electorate is not a deciding issue for local voters (think John Key, Helensville, and Parnell).

However, there are other factors at play in the decisions of non-voters to not "join in" with voters.

A 2013 Guardian ICM poll in the United Kingdom recorded "anger with politicians" as the single biggest factor (47%) influencing the non-voting population, followed by 25% who nominated "boredom with politics" a their reason for voter non-participation.

Those voters who nominated "anger" in the ICM poll as their road block to voting were fuelled by "broken promises by MP’s" (64%), "MP’s being dishonest" (46%), "Politicians not saying what they believe" (34%), "Parties so similar one cannot tell them apart" (26%), and "Parties not being representative of me or my opinion and perspective" (25%).

In 2012, Statistics New Zealand grouped non-voter responses from the 2011 Election into four broad categories, with 42% nominating themselves as "disengaged"; 30% nominating some form of "perceived barrier"; 12.3% being "not registered to vote", and 14.5% choosing "Other reasons for not voting".

Interestingly, boredom coupled with a deep and abiding sense of powerlessness was the top-ranked reason for Kiwi voter disengagement, not anger, as in the UK.

If the Kiwi voter was young, poor, unemployed, or a migrant, they were less likely to vote, even if they had taken the time to register as a voter prior to the Election.

So how does one encourage a non-voter to vote?

The field of Outcome Research in the political arena is fairly new in terms of being a valid research discipline.

One of the Outcome Research pioneers in the field is the Yale University Institution for Social and Policy Studies "Get Out The Vote" initiative, which both conducts and collects field experiment evidence from a host of different electoral campaigns.

Boiled down, the outcome research results look something like this: the closer the personal relationship that is built between the electoral candidate and the electoral voter, the more likely the voter will "join in" and vote.

The more distant the relationship between the two groups, the less likely the voter engagement will become.

So there you have it.

Political candidates may choose to stand on the side of a street with a sign, or bombard the electorate with leaflet drops, or drive around the streets with a megaphone, or show up at a pre-stacked "meet the Candidates" meeting, but if they haven’t built a relationship with the individuals in the community, then there are people in the community will not engage.

If I as a political candidate want non-voters to "join in", then I need to go and say "G’day", and hopefully return to them an authentic sense of personal power and influence in 2014.

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