Once again, local elections were marked by low voter turnout and a lack of engagement. Is media coverage, or lack thereof, contributing to the problem – and what can it do to help?​

One of many headlines about low turnout in local elections.
Photo:

In dozens of campaign appearances, new Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown has told the public that he plans to get rid of board members from council-controlled organizations Auckland Transport and Eke Panuku.

But just days after her election victory, employment lawyer Barbara Buckett gave RNZ morning report what seemed to be surprising news on this repeated promise.

“There are legal processes and procedures that must be followed [with board members’ employment],” she says.

“Although he can influence, he certainly cannot interfere.”

Buckett added that the governing body of Auckland Council would have to consent to any changes to the advice.

Espiner looked surprised.

“So he doesn’t really have the power to do that?” he’s laughing. “He campaigned on something he can’t do?

This reaction was understandable.

Despite the admirable efforts of Todd Niall of Stuffthe Herald’s Simon WilsonThe Spinoff and state-funded local democracy reporters, the mayoral candidates’ pledges and policies hadn’t received quite the same level of scrutiny they would have had if they were general elections.

While rigorous, factual coverage was relatively rare for the nation’s most publicized mayoral election, it was sometimes non-existent in neighborhood races and less publicized mayoral contests.

Pippa Coom, who lost her seat in Auckland’s Waitematā district, said Media monitoring she didn’t see much coverage at all from her close race against Mike Lee.

She said some outlets failed to publish their usual rundowns of neighborhood races like hers and as a result, “the void has been filled with misinformation and attack ads.”

“As a candidate, I absolutely have to take responsibility for my own loss and for not reaching my potential supporters and not getting people to vote,” she said.

“But media coverage is such an important part of our democracy and our elections. So if it’s not there, it’s going to… impact voter turnout and the outcome.”

With the lack of coverage came a lack of audience engagement.

Turnout in this year’s elections was around 40% nationwide. In Auckland, it’s only reached 35% for the second consecutive election.

Auckland Council conducted research where it asked non-voters about why they did not vote back in 2017.

The first reason given was that they knew nothing about the candidates. Second, they didn’t know enough about the policies – and third, they couldn’t know who to vote for.

In the weeks leading up to the election, RNZ’s Lucy Xia spoke to students in Auckland who told her that not only did they not vote, but they did not know the identity of the city’s mayor. .

“I don’t really have an opinion,” said one. “Maybe for the prime minister next year. But for the mayor? I don’t have an opinion.”

The lack of commitment weighed on the mind of stand-in presenter John Campbell during last weekend’s episode of TVNZ Q+A.

In conversation with journalist Katie Bradford, he pointed to turnout in Auckland’s poorer suburbs, which – as usual – were lagging behind wealthier areas.

“It has to be said that a turnout below 20% in Ōtara is heartbreaking. It’s not enough either,” he said.

“It’s a dismal failure on someone’s part.”

He then listed some possible culprits for this – including the central government, uninspiring local candidates and the electoral system itself.

There is evidence pointing to all of this.

In a BusinessDesk sectionPattrick Smellie said mail-in voting favors older landlords, who are more likely to stay at an address and send letters than younger people and renters.

“It is not news that no one under the age of 40 has much experience in publishing a letter. We have known for some time that postal voting skews the vote of local bodies in favor of the classes owning assets,” he wrote.

TVNZ journalist Katie Bradford, current chair of the press gallery.

TVNZ journalist Katie Bradford, current chair of the press gallery.
Photo: provided / TVNZ

Others criticized local government consultation processes, which are often tedious and inaccessible for people with busy lives, and the role of taxpayers which gives property owners one vote for each property they own in different locations. .

But in response to Campbell, Bradford emphasized the media’s role in voter disengagement.

“I’m passionate about local government and there are a lot of people who are. But how do you show people why it matters? It’s frustrating as a journalist,” she said.

Bradford said Media monitoring it is unclear whether the relative paucity of media coverage of local government reflects a lack of public interest in the topic – or vice versa.

“It’s almost a chicken and egg situation. Media coverage depends so much on what we think the public wants, and if people don’t read the paper, or if they turn off the radio or television when local government stories get out there, they’re not going to run them,” Bradford said Mediawatch.

Television and radio have had particular difficulty producing stories of local government interest because council meetings aren’t known for creating engaging visuals or sound bites, Bradford said.

She thought it would help if the stories were explicitly linked council decisions on matters of national importance like the housing crisis or Wellington’s ongoing problems with its water and sewers.

“All of these things are so important and I think people think it’s always the fault of the central government. They don’t necessarily think there’s council involvement and maybe the media is partly to blame. of not explaining these things enough,” she said.

“But it’s not just our job. It’s also the job of New Zealand local government and councils to explain this.”

Bradford backed the idea of ​​giving local government similar attention to central government, which is covered around the clock by teams of reporters from the press gallery.

But the saving from that decision would likely not add up for newsrooms, which are already under significant financial strain, she said.

She thought journalists could help by targeting broken parts of the electoral system and shining a light on the things that prevent people from engaging with the councils.

“This election shows that turnout hasn’t improved despite fairly widespread coverage, despite a great campaign by LGNZ and others. Everything we have right now is not working,” she said. “Something has to change.”