By Erin Kavanagh-Hall
WAIRARAPA bucked the national trend to put more women in power during this year’s local body elections – with two of its three districts reporting a surge in voter turnout.
Voter returns were, overall, dismal throughout the country, with only 39.5 per cent of eligible voters making their voice heard at the close of polling yesterday.
This marks a 1.8 per cent decrease in turnout since the 2013 elections, and a steep decline from 2010’s 49 per cent return – prompting government ministers to consider a perhaps overdue move to online voting.
In contrast Wairarapa shone as one of the more politically engaged regions, with both Carterton and South Wairarapa districts generating improved returns, according to Local Government New Zealand data.
Almost half of eligible Carterton residents ticked their voting papers, marking a 3.1 per cent increase (48.8 up from 45.7) from 2013 – while South Wairarapa’s voter return jumped 8.3 per cent from last election, with 53.3 per cent of voters having their say.
Conversely, though higher than the national average, only 40.1 per cent of eligible Masterton residents cast their vote – down almost 5 per cent from 2013, and a grim 14.3 per cent from six years ago.
Elected representatives had various theories on the region’s overall improved voter participation.
Newly-elected South Wairarapa district councillor Lee Carter put down her home district’s higher return to the possibility of the three Wairarapa councils amalgamating – with a proposal from the Local Government Commission to be released next year.
“There are a lot of views for and against amalgamation, and I think it prompted the voters to think about what they wanted to see in the future – and who they wanted on council,” Mrs Carter said.
“There are people here who see change, and there were fresh, new candidates coming through for them to choose from.
“So, it got them to put pen to paper.”
The five-horse mayoral race in South Wairarapa, eventually won by incumbent SWDC Deputy Mayor Viv Napier, also piqued voters’ interest and enthusiasm, she said.
“That was the most candidates we’ve had running for mayor – so that in itself is history-making.”
Mrs Carter, representing the Featherston Ward, said her hometown had a particularly high return (almost 52 per cent) – which she attributed to voters’ appetite for change, and desire for a “stronger voice” on council.
She was the highest polling Featherston candidate with 900 votes, close to 400 ahead of runner-up Colin Olds.
“We in Featherston are sick of feeling like the poor cousin – we want everything Greytown and Martinborough have, and more.
“People want honest dealings, better communication, to feel valued by their council and for the town to grow; so they voted for someone who they believe isn’t frightened to speak up.
“I was really proud of our town for showing up and voting – the people have spoken, now it’s up to us to do the business.”
In Carterton, re-elected Mayor John Booth attributed the community’s improved engagement down to social media movements, such as LGNZ’s #Vote16NZ campaign and I Am A Voter, an initiative lead by a group of Carterton candidates.
“I think, on the whole, our community is becoming more engaged – and giving people the extra encouragement helps,” he said.
I Am A Voter, spearheaded by re-elected district councillor Jill Greathead, was set up to motivate residents to cast their vote (irrespective of for whom), with candidates setting up stalls outside Carterton New World and the railway station, reminding passersby to vote and handing out stickers to those who had.
To help reach younger voters, candidates also set up a Facebook page and organised an informal Q&A session at Toi Wairarapa Heart of Arts, facilitated by Rangatahi to Rangatira youth group and streamed live on Facebook.
Ms Greathead, elected for her sixth term on council, said the response to I Am A Voter was mostly positive.
“About a handful of people said they weren’t interested,” she said.
“But loads more people were really keen – they’d say things like, ‘good on you’ and ‘oh, thanks for reminding me.’
“I think it’s important we spend that time on social media, and involve the younger generation.”
In Masterton, newly elected district councillor Deborah Davidson said, in her experience, engagement with youth was sorely lacking.
While campaigning, Ms Davidson, a former youth development co-ordinator with the Wairarapa Safer Community Trust, said she found herself educating young people on the voting process.
“I found a lot of 18 to 25-year-olds didn’t know how they could vote,” she said.
“They didn’t know where to go, or the forms to fill out.
“I think we need to be teaching Year 12s and 13s this kind of thing in school – it’s so easy and so important.”
Ms Davidson said streaming “meet the candidates” events via social media, as was done in Carterton, would help with voter engagement.
Masterton mayor Lyn Patterson ran unopposed in this year’s election, and said the absence of a mayoral race may have left voters disinterested.
“But honestly, low voter turnout is a problem in the Western world as a whole, and I don’t think there’s one single answer.
“Online voting may be one solution but, before any changes are made, we need to get a better understanding on why people feel disengaged in local government.”
Regardless of poor voter turnout, Mrs Patterson said she was “really pleased” with the council voted in – which includes newcomers Ms Davidson, John Dalziell, Bex Johnson and Frazer Mailman.
Tararua District mayor Tracey Collis, of Eketahuna, was yet another Wairarapa woman elected to top civic office, her win definitive by a margin of 2722 votes.
“I thought the results would be very close,” Mrs Collis said.
“I’m shocked by the margin. ”