Wellington Scoop

Voting, owning, renting

by Conor Hill
I recently ran for Mayor of Wellington. I didn’t win, so the only conclusion I can come to is that the system must be broken. In all seriousness though, campaigning for the mayoralty made me think a lot more about the health of local body democracy, and I want to write about some of these issues. Today, it’s the turn of the uber issue, turnout. (Warning to stats nerds: leans heavily on correlation implying causation).

In short, almost nobody votes and that’s a huge problem.

Wellington turnout was less than 40%, and only about 17 or 18% of people voted for the winner of the mayoralty. In parts of the country with low turnout and different electoral systems, it’s likely that mayors were elected with about 10% of people voting for them. This cannot be called democratic in any real sense of the word.

There are all the obvious things that have been touched on about who is most likely to vote – age is a big one.

But I’m going to guess that the single thing that is most likely to indicate whether people vote is whether or not they own a home. In Wellington, turnout was over 40% higher in Wharangi-Western with its high percentage of homeowners, than it was in Pukehinau-Lambton with its high percentage of renters.

Across the country, smaller councils generally have higher turnout than larger councils. Again I am going to suggest that this is because city councils have higher numbers of people renting. Intuitively it makes sense. Paying a $3000 rates bill makes you care a whole lot more about what the council does than your landlord paying a portion of your rent money to the council.

So we have a system with low turnout, and that turnout is probably dominated by homeowners. There are all sorts of downstream implications of this, but today I am just noting that at local body level, government is decided by property owners.

In effect it’s like going back 200 years to the UK when you had to own land to vote. It’s bleak, and only drastic change will give councils the appropriate power and representation. I’ll get into what some of those changes might be later on.


  1. Matty H, 5. November 2019, 9:36

    I would’ve thought you’d have seen that democracy (rule by the people) is a dogma. That’s why the growing number who do know don’t vote.
    “If voting did anything they wouldn’t let us do it.” GC

  2. Jumped up punk, 5. November 2019, 10:13

    I don’t know about home ownership. I’ve voted every election and this was the first time as a home owner. To be honest as someone who follows politics closely I still found the voting form and guide book onerous to read through and vote. Couple this with postal voting. My papers arrived well after it started and then try and find a post box these days. Too many barriers in place. Add people who pay no attention to politics who probably would have chucked the letter in a pile somewhere and if they ever got around to opening it it was too late anyway. I don’t know the answer but it’s still democracy as everyone has the chance to vote, whether they choose to engage is another matter.

  3. Stephen Todd, 5. November 2019, 10:34

    “But I’m going to guess that the single thing that is most likely to indicate whether people vote is whether or not they own a home.” I’m going to disagree. Whether people are home-owners, or renters, they all want a well-functioning city.

    Keeping in mind that older people are more likely to vote in *general* elections, too, than younger people, there are a number of reasons why the voter-participation rate in Wharangi/Onslow-Western was higher there, than elsewhere in the city. It is not so much because of home-ownership, specifically, but more to do with the fact that, generally, intelligent / (university)-educated, socially- and politically-aware people (who are likely, in the long-run, to be better-off), are more likely to vote (and vote centre-right, and right) than those who possess a lesser amount of those attributes, or qualities. (That is surely the main reason why, by October 2020, National will have been in power for 56 of the last 71 years, and Labour for just 15.)

    But, in Wellington, the fact that we have STV is particularly relevant. Being a system of proportional representation, educated people know that if you want something, you must vote for it. For example, with FPP, if you are a Labour voter in Rongotai, you can stay home on election day, and still get what you want. With STV, educated people (in particular) know that if they don’t vote, they run the very risk of losing out to those who do.

    Onslow-Western is a case in point. In that ward, the participation rate was 47.51%. Across the rest of the city, it was 37.72%. I have no doubt that Onslow-Western voters instinctively knew that, in a left-leaning city, if they wanted a change of mayor, they had to *vote* for a change of mayor – and clearly they did. (And, even then, it was still a very close-run thing.)

    So, to conclude, there are many factors contributing to voter-participation rates (including accessible post offices / post boxes), other than just home-ownership.

  4. Conor, 5. November 2019, 11:41

    If education was the main thing, young people would vote more, given that many more young people get university qualifications now than older generations did. Also, the fact rural parts of the country with less educated populations vote more than in highly educated Wellington would seem to argue against that.

    As an addendum I would assume that postal voting also impacts most negatively on renters. I shifted on average yearly as a renter. I’d make sure I was enrolled for general elections, but definitely a couple of local body ones I didn’t vote, at least partly because I wasn’t enrolled at my address.

    It’s also kind of a vicious cycle – politicians knows the profile of local body voters so directly appeal to those voters, and ignore renters, young people, whomever. Young people and renters tune out, and so politicians ignore them…..

  5. GrahamCA, 5. November 2019, 11:59

    Where did you learn Maths Stephen? In the past 71 years Labour has been in Government for 24 years not 15

    1957 – 60 = 3
    1972 – 75 = 3
    1984 – 90 = 6
    1999 – 08 = 9
    2017 = 20 = 3 (with more to add)

  6. Stephen Todd, 5. November 2019, 13:11

    Yes, you’re quite right, GrahamCA. I should have said 47–24. In my haste, I messed up my addition. I apologise for my carelessness.

  7. Joanne Perkins, 5. November 2019, 13:25

    Your affirmation that educated voters are more likely to vote centre right/right needs to be challenged as well Stephen; seems to me that worldwide the more educated vote left/centre left – if it were not so, the kind of gerrymandering seen in the US would not be needed. I am university educated as are the majority of my social circle and 90% of them vote left. As has been said, the moral arc of the universe tends toward justice, something the right has never really understood.

  8. Stephen Todd, 5. November 2019, 13:33

    @Conor. It’s not just education, but age and maturity, too, in my view.

    My point was, the factors that drive voter-participation are to do with more than just home-ownership. I have voted in 16 local elections now, and I can assure you, I was *not* a home-owner for most of them. (Similarly to you, between 1972 and 1986, I had 18 changes of address.)

    I look forward to reading your remaining articles in this series.

  9. GrahamCA, 5. November 2019, 13:59

    And if we went back 85 years (to when National was formed) the ratio would be Labour 36 National 47

  10. Peter Kerr, 5. November 2019, 14:22

    You’re all wrong. Seventy one years ago was 1948. In the past 71 years Labour has been in power 26 years.
    1948 – 49 = 2
    1957 – 60 = 3
    1972 – 75 = 3
    1984 – 90 = 6
    1999 – 08 = 9
    2017 – 20 = 3

  11. Stephen Todd, 5. November 2019, 15:39

    No we’re not, Peter. I originally said “That is surely the main reason why, by October 2020, National will have been in power for [47] of the last 71 years, and Labour for just [24].”
    But, like you, I ruined it by rushing my response.

  12. GrahamCA, 5. November 2019, 15:45

    Peter if you check Stephen’s original comment he was going back 71 years from September 2020 which arrived at the start of the Holland administration. I went back from the same start point to the formation of the National Party i.e. the election of the first Labour Government.

  13. Stephen Todd, 5. November 2019, 16:19

    @Joanne Perkins. It is more my perception, than my affirmation.

    Most Western democracies, certainly since WWII, have had centre-right or right governments, noticeably for more years, than they have had centre-left or left governments. For example, UK, Germany, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand.

    A reason for that must be that educated, successful / well-off, no longer-young, people, not only vote, but vote to the right of centre, more often than not (After all, by and large, they are voting to protect what they have.) They get what they want, more often than not, because, over many elections, they have comprised a greater proportion of those who have voted, than of those who have not voted. And, with falling turnouts around the world, that won’t change anytime soon.

    In the US (which, in my view, is barely a democracy at all), both parties each take advantage of FPP by gerrymandering their districts when they are in control of their state Houses. See my preceding paragraph as to why, in my view, the Republicans have more success at that than do the Democrats.

    As to your social circle, all I will say is that “birds of feather [tend to] flock together.”

    Regarding the moral arc of the universe tending towards justice, I think history (certainly since The Enlightenment) shows that to be true.

  14. Hel, 5. November 2019, 20:26

    The sad reality is the quality of candidates does not inspire voters. If you blanked out the names of the candidates and just went off their position statements then it would be hard to find any who stand out from the crowd. A bland bunch of high level and generic promises that don’t inspire voters. The other issue is that there really isn’t a burning platform, the city is doing well and continues to be a great place to live.

  15. george, 5. November 2019, 21:49

    The booklet provided by the council had scant detail on candidates’ policies, and a lot more research was required to vote on an informed basis. A lot more information on candidates’ policies and ideologies is required up front. I was astounded by further research that Conor Hill proposed building private housing on Town Belt Land. That kind of thinking belongs in the 19th century.

  16. Vivian M, 6. November 2019, 6:59

    Disenfranchised by a constant right wing govt that sometimes pretends to be center/left. It’s really not hard to see the reason why people don’t vote.

  17. Conor, 6. November 2019, 8:15

    Yep, candidate quality is definitely an issue, I will write on that too! And not just casting my eye on others 🙂

    The idea that the 150 words of self love in the booklet can or should inform people is of course another major issue. We wouldn’t expect 150 words to inform us on national politics either and would get the same issues if we did. In 150 words, you only really get time for some version of who am I or value statements.

    I did point people to my website from the booklet, where you could find all my policies. Including the idea of changing a small part of a golf course to housing. 🙂 The wealthy play golf and the majority of people can’t afford to own a home. I wish that was the 19th century, but it’s Wellington today.

  18. Phil Andrews, 6. November 2019, 8:41

    I too think that a major factor reducing turn out is that it is so hard to make a rational decision due to a lack of information. STV actually makes this worse as to rank everyone requires knowing all the candidates’ policies in detail. The lack of obvious party affiliations also makes this worse. Party affiliations both tell us the broad thrust of a candidate’s policies and puts constraints on the candidate not to stray too far outside of that policy envelope, giving voters confidence that they are not being had.

    So at minimum we need more information – say a government-run website where you can easily find policy statements; party affiliations; and voting records for those already in office.

    I would also like to see a council wide (i.e. no wards) MMP system where one can make both a party vote and a vote for an individual candidate. There would be no threshold: to be elected an individual would need to get a percentage of the vote at least equal to the percentage one council seat represents of all council seats. The party vote would use party lists.

  19. glenn, 6. November 2019, 15:23

    Maybe the low voting turnout has nothing to do with a broken system but more to do with the overall quality of the candidates. Maybe, just maybe, people are sick to death of pie in the sky, rubbish policies. Wouldn’t be a bad idea to actually getting back to providing sewage/water/roading/libraries/swimming pools etc for the poor ratepayers, and leave the monuments to developers.

  20. Stephen Todd, 6. November 2019, 15:56

    @Phil Andrews: STV gives voters a single vote, which is transferable, if necessary. Voters use their single vote by giving their first preference to the candidate for whom they vote. Second and later preferences, if expressed, are contingency choices only. Voters do not have to “rank everyone”, and neither do they need to know all the candidates’ policies in detail. I agree with you, though, that voters need more information, along the lines you suggest.

    MMP is wholly unsuitable for local elections. For example, are you aware that, nationally, 85% of all candidates are independents / No party? If ‘MMP’ were applied to Wellington, there would, presumably, be seven individual seats (elected city-wide) and seven party list seats, yet you say each individual-seat winner would need to get at least 100 / 14 = 7.14% of the votes. Why this arbitrary figure? Why not just elect the seven candidates with the highest number of votes?

    And what voting system do you propose? Multiple-FPP, where voters have as many votes as there are vacancies to be filled? Under that system, a plurality of voters, constituting the largest group of voters (that, together, are less than an absolute majority), could, at worst, take *all* seven seats being contested, leaving well over half of all voters with no representation at all! Or do you propose something like the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV), where voters have one vote (that is not transferable), even though there would be seven vacancies. Although marginally better than multiple-FPP, the winners will receive varying numbers of votes, including some who would receive many more votes than they need to be elected, and one or two who might not meet your arbitrary threshold.

    How would the party vote be contested? Would the parties have to show they have a certain number of members? Most ‘parties’ at the local level didn’t exist at the 2016 elections, e.g., The Wellington Party, and (probably) won’t exist at the 2022 elections. They are nothing more than temporary vehicles, set up by a handful of activists, to promote candidates of a particular political persuasion.

    Also, given that the ‘parties’ would only be contesting seven seats, each party list would have no more than four names on it. That is because no party could hope to get more than 57% of the party votes (14.29% × 4 = 57%), not to mention 71% (5 seats). What a waste of time.

    Your ‘MMP’ variant would not only be clumsy and unwieldy, but would also produce unfair outcomes. In my view, the 14 councillors should be elected by STV, city-wide. Each successful candidate would only need 6.67% of the votes to be elected. Centre-right voters in the Southern Ward would not be denied representation. Nor would centre-left voters in Onslow-Western have to rely on someone like Andy Foster winning the mayoralty, in order to be represented by someone they voted for.

  21. Conor, 6. November 2019, 18:05

    One thing to think about when discussing candidate quality is to remember that smaller district councils have higher turnout on average than big cities. I would be surprised if candidate quality in smaller councils was consistently higher than in Auckland and Wellington.

  22. GillyT, 6. November 2019, 18:53

    Stephen Todd: “Most Western democracies, certainly since WWII, have had centre-right or right governments, noticeably for more years, than they have had centre-left or left governments. For example, UK, Germany, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand.” That’s correct, but the reason why is because of policies created by centre-left governments in those countries in the immediate pre and post-war years that enabled prosperity in the post-war years to be distributed in a way that created a large, stable and ultimately conservative middle class. The New Deal in the US, Peter Fraser’s government in NZ and the Atlee government in the UK spring to mind. What’s interesting is that no-one touched those policies until the 1980s, regardless of their political leanings.

  23. PCGM, 6. November 2019, 19:47

    Conor – In my very considerable experience working with councils of all sizes around New Zealand, the candidate quality in small councils is vastly better than in the cities, Wellington very much included. In fact, the quality of candidates seems to be inversely proportional to the size of the council, and our city is suffering as a result.

    In a small community, you can only get elected to council if you’re well known to the people who live there as a competent person of integrity, who will actually get things done. And you can’t get that reputation overnight – it generally takes years-to-decades to build up through hard work and a genuine involvement with the people around you.

    In a major city you can get elected by being a posturing ideologue who has the support of a major party that will obligingly stuff your flyers into every letterbox in your ward – or by being a media star of some description whose name everyone remembers from the telly. And to point out the obvious, mere name recognition is hardly a guarantee of competence.

    Case in point: in a small town, every single councillor will have some practical job experience, and therefore an understanding of how the world actually works. Yet in Wellington, we have councillors who have never had a career outside of politics – and whose competence in deciding matters that affect real people with actual businesses and jobs seems decidedly questionable.

    And therein lies the problem, in my view. If I live in a small town, I’ll make the effort to go and vote for someone I know because I trust them to make good decisions on my behalf. If I live in a big city, why would I be bothered voting just to give some career politician that I don’t know from a bar of soap another 3 years of ratepayer funded career progression?

  24. Hel, 6. November 2019, 20:36

    Conor, The more you post the clearer it is that candidate quality is a prime issue. I play golf and am by no means wealthy but hey if it fits your chip in a shoulder view. By the way I haven’t met anyone who thinks building houses on the town belt is anything but ridiculous.

  25. Conor, 6. November 2019, 20:46

    Yep I think that knowing someone standing probably also encourages people to vote.

    Regarding small town candidates, I come from Tasman originally, and that council is often dominated by a cabal of orchardists. They do things, that’s true, but hard to think they’re good. Approve crap lifestyle subdivisions, get other people to subsidise a dam for them, and design one of the worst town centres in the country with a huge carpark in the middle of it. Earlier this year, the mayor made a ludicrous unsubstantiated statement that fire relief funding was delayed because of a gun buyback scheme.

    I guess it must be an outlier.

  26. James F, 7. November 2019, 7:40

    Agree with you Vivian, people feel disenfranchised. They don’t believe in the democracy myth anymore.

  27. Marion Leader, 7. November 2019, 7:43

    PCGM has spelled it out so clearly. What was missing from “qualities” put forward by candidates in Wellington City was any reference to any governance ability or even experience. People are still smarting about getting a letter from a local MP praising somebody who began working for his political party twenty years ago.

  28. Stephen Todd, 7. November 2019, 8:00

    @Gilly T: I wouldn’t argue with that, Gilly. It could be said that the truth of my explanation (in my second paragraph – note I started off by saying, “*A* reason for that […].”) is a consequence of the truth of your explanation, so I’m going to say we’re both right.

  29. Stephen Todd, 7. November 2019, 9:15

    @Phil Andrews: Further to my response yesterday, I mentioned that the parties would only be contesting seven seats, i.e., party proportionality would be determined over seven seats, not 14. I forgot to mention the reason for that is because, otherwise, there would almost always be an overhang of several *Individual* seats.

    Let’s say the party vote entitles The Wellington Party to 5 seats, Labour to 5, and the Greens to 4. Let’s also say independent candidates are elected to fill four of the seven individual seats. Those four seats would be overhang seats, giving an 18-seat council.

    Therefore, your MMP variant could only work the way the Supplementary Member (SM) system works – proportionality being determined only across the List seats – except that the split between List and Individual seats would be 50/50, not 25/75.

    Not a good system. My suggestion – STV; city-wide – is far superior, in that it would ensure proportionality by whatever criteria is important, collectively, to those who vote.

  30. Groggy, 7. November 2019, 11:00

    @ Conor, it’s not the golf course that is the issue, it’s the fact it’s town belt. Once you remove the protection from even a small slice of it, a legal precedent is created that allows future councils to continue to nibble away at it until there is no green left. You clearly have some bias against golfers, future councils may consider other unused green spaces a waste when we need houses, and once you’ve opened the town belt to rezoning the whole thing is at risk of development.

    And we all know that our council will ignore public feedback in favor of secret deals with developers – the ongoing fight citizens have had to try to keep some of the waterfront free of Willis Bond buildings is a prime example.

  31. Conor, 7. November 2019, 14:16

    @Goffy I guess I am more pro homes. I understand the slippery slope argument, but the history of the town belt is super fluid. Hospitals, schools, homes and roads have all been built on it. Land has been added and removed from it multiple times, and it has grown by far more than a golf course in the last few decades.

    Our current mayor wants to build a road on it, and I am looking forward to all the save the town belt people coming out heavily on that one – I know there are a lot of them! I certainly hope none of them voted for him.