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‘No contest’ election could lead to fewer young voters

‘No contest’ election could lead to fewer young voters

If young people who are newly eligible to vote don’t exercise that right in this year’s election it could lead to them avoiding the ballot box for many years, research shows.

Less than half of the New Zealand population aged between 18 and 30 voted in the last general election. According to Jack Vowles, a professor of comparative politics at Victoria University of Wellington, elections won on wide margins with few policy differences are associated with lower turnout and new voters in particular are less likely to vote when elections are not close.

“This is of concern because international research tells us that voting and non-voting are matters of habit. So if young people who are newly eligible to vote fail to exercise their democratic right because they think it’s a shoe-in for National, as polls are currently indicating, they could easily continue this habit of not voting, even when they might encounter closer elections later in life.”

Professor Vowles is also concerned that people perceive ‘closeness’ in terms of the difference between Labour and National vote intentions, without taking alternative parties into consideration.

“Labour’s recent failure to confirm a potential coalition with the Green Party could play into this misperception, as did the unwillingness of the major party leaders to debate with the leaders of other parties in the 2008 and 2011 campaigns. As a result, many people may underestimate the possible closeness of the 2014 election, much as they did in 2011.”

At a conference yesterday, focused on improving voter turnout in New Zealand and organised by the Electoral Commission, Professor Vowles began a panel discussion on ‘New Zealand’s non-voters and what we know about them’ by presenting the historical statistical trends of voter behaviour in this country.

He says the last period over which voter turnout significantly increased in New Zealand was 1975 to 1984 during Robert Muldoon’s term as Prime Minister, when, after a period of decline, turnout increased dramatically over four successive elections.

“Party membership numbers rose, new parties and new issue dimensions entered politics, and election results were extremely close,” explains Professor Vowles.

“Political parties differed in their promises, and the country was deeply divided on several major issues about which large numbers of people cared deeply.”

Professor Vowles is cautious about introducing measures such as internet voting. “What seems clear from the international literature is that voting is a social act. Reforms to electoral administration that might make it more of an individual act, such as internet voting, might actually make things worse.”

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