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Building interest in politics key to voter turnout

16 November 2007 – for immediate release

Building interest in politics key to voter turnout – survey results

The Electoral Commission says its latest survey shows those involved in politics need to make it more interesting to average and young New Zealand if more are to vote in elections, and MPs in particular need to do more to explain what their job involves to an uncertain public.

“Just 38% of us claim to have a good idea about what Members of Parliament do,” says commission chief executive Dr Helena Catt reporting its latest MMP understanding survey results, “and there’s still a real mix of attitudes towards list MPs including a lot of neutral or uncertain views”.

List MPs
“Fifty percent strongly agree with the view that list MPs are not as accountable to voters as electorate MPs. This is better than 61% seven years ago, but is still a long way from the view that all MPs are equally accountable through the ballot box. List MPs are elected, not just selected, and we certainly believe that the media and voters need to scrutinise party lists thoroughly at election time.

“Also, there’s real uncertainty about the workload of list MPs. Nearly half (46%) of us are neutral or uncertain of our reaction to the statement that list MPs generally do as much work as electorate MPs, with the rest of us evenly split between agreeing and disagreeing.

“Finally, we checked out just how widespread concern apparent after the election concerning electorate losers returning through list seats was. In fact, 53% of us think that a sitting electorate MP losing an electorate seat should not be able to return to parliament through the party list. This is despite 71% agreeing, including 48% who strongly agree, that they take different things into account when deciding who gets their party and electorate votes,” Dr Catt says.

Interest in politics and MMP understanding
The survey looked at interest in politics and correct understanding of key aspects of MMP. Dr Catt says that being interested clearly relates to understanding and whether or not someone votes at all.

“Half of admitted non-voters claim an interest in politics compared with nearly three-quarters of voters, while just a third of non-voters think MMP is easy to understand, compared with 55% of voters,” says Dr Catt, add that the survey recorded the highest ever non-election year correct result for the party vote being most important, continuing a positive trend.

“But it’s not surprising that just 46% of non-voters know that the party vote is most important compared with 67% of voters.”
“And it’s not that non-voters are disillusioned. For instance, they are just about as likely as voters to think that voting can make a difference,” Dr Catt says.

Dr Catt noted that while 72% claimed to be interested in politics, four of six current issues put to respondents had each been discussed by between 82 and 85%, “suggesting politics might be seen narrowly as being about politicians and not issues”.

Survey implications
“New Zealand has relatively high voter turnout, helped by close election races, but the trend is downwards in line with international trends. Increasing interest in politics will be critical to arresting the decline before the rate accelerates as it has elsewhere.

“We know both that non-voters are generally younger and non-voting becomes a lifelong habit. Longer term strategies, such as improvements to the citizenship content of the school curriculum recently announced, will help but participants in New Zealand’s political machinery need to reflect on how they can build interest for the potential voters of 2008 to arrest the downwards trend.”

“Parties, politicians and the news media – who all have a vested interest in a healthy democracy – need to consider the way they help or hinder the building of interest through the way they do their work and present themselves and their work to the public,” says Dr Catt.

“The Electoral Commission also needs to refine its education strategy. In the early years of MMP it was about ensuring people knew how to vote, more recently it’s been about helping people use their votes in the best way to contribute to the result they want to see, and now we need to work on deepening understanding of the impact of MMP on the work of MPs and the opportunities for citizens to be an effective part of the process between elections,” Dr Catt concluded.

The telephone survey of 3,000 people was conducted by UMR Research in June and July 2007 and has a margin of error of 1.8%.

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