Student interest in elections low

The local body elections are almost at hand, providing many students their first chance to vote, but will they? Youth enrolment rates remain low and students say they are uninterested in the elections. FIONA THOMAS, JADE COOPER and KATE DAVIDSON investigate.

Of 20 University of Canterbury students approached on campus last week, less than half knew the local body elections were coming up.

Less than a quarter knew how to vote, only two believed that they had enough knowledge to cast an informed vote, and most did not care about the elections and did not plan to vote.

It is a dispiriting picture of democracy, and reflects New Zealand’s steadily declining voter turnout. The last general election marked one of our lowest turnouts yet, with only 69 percent of eligible voters taking part.

Nearly half of those who stayed away in 2010 were aged 18 to 24. Indeed, young voters, many of whom are students, lag a long way behind all other registered voters in terms of turnout.

They also lag in terms of enrolment. It is compulsory to register to vote, but not even that has been enough to encourage some young people to enrol. According to the Electoral Commission, only 61 percent of Christchurch residents aged 18-24 are enrolled to vote, compared with enrolment rates of more than 90 percent for other age groups.

Mayoral hopeful Lianne Dalziel said the problem was not unique to students.

“It’s the same as trying to get anybody interested in local government elections.”

The last Christchurch City Council election, which pitted high profile candidates Jim Anderton and Bob Parker against each other in the mayoral race, prompted the biggest voter turnout in a long time, she said. A high, however, of only 50 percent.

Students approached by The Record said they were not apathetic; they simply felt unaccounted for in local politics.

UC Masters student Sian Davies said there were plenty of council services that affected student life, but students did not feel the council engaged with them.

“I just don’t think they are tailored to keep anyone interested, especially students,” Davies said.

Hagley-Ferrymead candidate Nathan Durkin, 28, said councillors too often failed to attend to young voices, and instead pandered to older people because they were more likely to vote, but they risked increasing voter apathy.

Local government academic Dr Andy Asquith said statistics showed that young people who did not vote in the first election following their 18th birthday were unlikely to vote in subsequent elections.

Durkin said that posed serious long-term consequences for New Zealand’s democracy.

He wants to see the political system significantly revamped to encourage young people to be more politically active when it counts, and suggested civic education in schools, e-voting and a higher number of younger candidates in local government.

Student Responses

Davies said students would be more interested if the issues were important to them. “Students have enough on their plate already with studies and families. It’s got to be pretty interesting to get involved.”

Students need to feel they can make a difference

Political Science lecturer Dr Bronwyn Hayward, author of Children, Citizenship and Environment, said local government was hard to engage with for everybody.

“What we know makes people engage with elections is they have to feel that there is a competition, that their voice is going to make a difference.”

Fendalton-Waimari candidate Raf Manji hoped the possible introduction of online voting for the 2016 election might improve young voter turnout.

“Too often, we hear the older generations speak on behalf of young people. We need to hear young people speak for themselves.”

But Spreydon-Heathcote candidate and outgoing University of Canterbury Students’ Association (UCSA) president Erin Jackson said it was about more than allowing giving students a voice; students also needed to see that they could have an impact. There was no point seeking young people’s views if they were not taken into account.

“We did a lot work with the council surrounding the Local Alcohol Policy. In terms of the actual impact from this, I don’t believe that there will have been much.”

Dalziel said councils need to trust young people to play a bigger role. “I would like to see the Youth Council get more responsibility and feed directly into the council.”

The student population had a lot to offer the wider community, Hayward said.

“It really matters that we have a strong student voice. It strikes me as fascinating that students haven’t realised yet their power.”

She cited the Student Volunteer Army as an example of how strong the student body could be if engaged.

“That’s a student group that reaches 24 000 people still on Facebook. That’s bigger than nearly all of our political parties, and that’s huge. If that group was motivated, organised and mobilised to vote, it would completely change the face of local elections.”

Christchurch registrar of electors Glen Clark said students were missing out on more than they realised by not enrolling to vote. Many were happy to sign petitions, for instance, but if they were not enrolled, their signature did not count.

The Electoral Commission tries to target young voters, by attending career days at schools and less conventional events like the comic book festival Armageddon. It also sends representatives to tertiary institutions during orientation week and market days, and again during election periods.

Clark said students’ lack of political awareness was not the problem.

“You will find a lot of young people are politically aware and have a view and exercise it on social media,” he said.
“But they don’t realise that the most powerful voice you have is through voting.”

Voter Information

  • Local government elections are held every three years and are for city and district councils, regional councils and District Health Boards. In some parts of New Zealand, elections will also be held for local and community boards, licensing trusts and some other organisations.
  • Voters cast their vote by postal ballot. Every enrolled voter will be sent a voting paper from September 20, and counting will take place on October 12.
  • People enrolled after August 16 must cast a special vote, but can still enrol online at
  • Voters can find out more about the elections and voting information on the Electoral Commission website or Christchurch City Council website or

_Graphic by Fiona Thomas, Front page photo by Emily Spink