Voter Turnout Decline in New Zealand: A Critical Review of the Literature and Suggestions for Future Research

By Foster, Jack; Taylor, Dylan | New Zealand Sociology, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Voter Turnout Decline in New Zealand: A Critical Review of the Literature and Suggestions for Future Research


Foster, Jack, Taylor, Dylan, New Zealand Sociology


Introduction

Non-voters are a threatening presence for contemporary liberal democracies. The Electoral Commission's (EC, 2015, pp.i-ii) report on the 2014 New Zealand general election reveals the anxiety non-voters induce: "A healthy democracy is in everyone's interest", it argues, and is not something "New Zealanders can afford to take for granted." While a decline in voter turnout has been common across developed democracies over the past 30 years, it "has been particularly steep and persistent" in New Zealand and is a "serious problem" (EC, 2015, p.i).

The EC (2014) address the problem of voter turnout decline by focusing on how the characteristics of individual voters and specific elections affect turnout. This view is dominant across other normative literature on the subject. While such research is valuable, it is limited by focusing on the 'problem' presented by non-voters at the expense of accounting for the wider structural limitations of contemporary liberal democracy. This article seeks to synthesise the most useful existing lines of research into voter turnout decline and to highlight the need to approach the issue as multifaceted and systemic, with attention paid to the how changes in political economy can affect democratic practices.

The article's first section outlines the socio-demographic profile of nonvoters in New Zealand and compares this to international trends. The second section reviews both New Zealand literature on this topic, and that from other developed democracies, critically evaluating the major explanations and proposed solutions to voter turnout decline. Six main areas of research are identified: (i) psychological explanations relating either to the 'efficacy' of voting or the application of rational choice theory; (ii) the effect of institutional variables, such as voting laws and the electoral system; (iii) the effect of electoral context variables, which include the competitiveness of elections and the ideological divergence of competing political parties; (iv) macro-economic explanations, such as the impact of national inequality levels and economic integration on voter turnout; (v) the effect of mobilisation variables, including the role of unions and political party membership; and (vi) the perceived generational shift away from 'duty-bound' or 'habitual' voting. In treating each of these categories, we explore overlaps and divergences between the New Zealand and international literature. While there are a number of valuable lines of research present within the literature, we find that there is little by way of a constructive synthesis. The final section therefore highlights the most useful and penetrating insights into voter turnout decline in the literature surveyed. We contend that considerations of the structural dynamics of contemporary capitalism are essential if we are to deepen our understanding of voter turnout decline and we offer suggestions for future research on this issue in the New Zealand context.

Profiling the non-voter

Voter turnout has declined relatively steadily in New Zealand since the mid1950s, although it spiked in 1984 with 93.7% of those enrolled voting.1 Then from 1984 to 2014 the decline in voter turnout was marked and consistent. The 2011 general election saw only 74.2% of those enrolled voting (EC, 2018a). In real terms, this means that only 69.6% of the estimated eligible population voted in 2011 (EC, 2012, p.4), an historic low since the introduction of universal suffrage. While both the 2014 and 2017 general elections saw a slight uptick, with 72.1% and 73.7% of the estimated eligible population voting respectively, over a quarter of the eligible population abstained, meaning that in the 2017 general election approximately 938,019 eligible voters did not vote (EC, 2015, p.i; 2018b, p.16). Enrolment rates have also declined in recent years. In the 2008 general election, 4.7% of the estimated eligible population were not enrolled to vote; 2011 saw this increase to 6. …

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