I suck at local elections. They creep up on me. One minute I’m ‘so going to do some research on candidates and be an informed voter this year’ and the next there are thickets of hoardings around town, an unopened orange envelope on my kitchen counter, and only a few days left to vote.

Which wouldn’t be so bad, except that voting in local body elections is kinda complicated.

You can’t just rock up and wing it on the day like you can with a general election where, when all’s said and done, all you have to do is tick two boxes – one for a party, one for a candidate.

In a local election you have to do homework. Because not only do you tick a box for mayor, there are also boxes for councillors, community board members, regional councillors and sometimes licensing trusts and other organisations. Then you’re asked to rank a dozen or so folk running for district health board.

Which would be fine, except I don’t know who any of them are. They are not people I come across regularly on Twitter or Facebook or mailing lists or even in the news. I’m relatively new to the area and I’ve never met any of them in person.

There are no burning issues on the homefront (our road’s in reasonable nick, the rubbish gets picked up each week and we recently got a free tree trim to keep our hedge clear of the power lines) to push me one way or another.

So with a few days to go I’m studying the pamphlet that came in the orange envelope, which turns out to have the same two- or three-paragraph blurb about each candidate as the vote.co.nz website.  (vote.co.nz now directing to: https://www.solgm.org.nz/Resources/Elections)

The website, which I think is great, lets you ask questions of candidates, but few of us have and even fewer have answered them. I googled a bit too, and had a quick scan of news sites.

Not a lot to go on, really.

Nonetheless, working on the assumption that voting on light research is better than not voting at all, I tick boxes, rank candidates, and make the mailing deadline by the skin of my teeth.

Sum total of my contribution to local democracy: a few hours.

But as it turns out, that’s a few hours more than a lot of other people.

Voter turnout was really low this year (2013): only about 40% of those eligible voted. That compares to a previous low of 44% in 2007, and to general elections where the turnout is much higher – 73% voted in the 2011 general election.

The low turnout surprised Local Government NZ president and Hastings mayor Lawrence Yule, according to NZ Herald. Yule said “it was time to look at all the options, although he did not support compulsory voting. He believed a shorter voting period and the use of ballot boxes and online voting rather than postal voting would help”.

Commentator David Farrar noted there was a general downward trend in voter participation worldwide and said he supports an online voting trial: “I think each year it’s going to get much worse with postal voting because the postal system is becoming less relevant.” Commentator Bryce Edwards told Stuff he thought it had been a “business as usual election” with “really not much on the line and very little to inspire everyone”.

The Government is working on a trial of online voting in 2016 and Local Government Minister Chris Tremain has said he will “ask the working group to consider whether it could be trialled earlier so it could be offered across the country”.

I’m not sure about that. But however we go about casting a ballot, I’ve still got to find a way to get to know the 30+ people whose names will appear on my ballot paper.

Better still, those 30+ people might want to find a way to get to know me – along with a bunch of other New Zealanders who currently feel out of the loop. Surveys undertaken by Local Government NZ found that lack of information was one of the main reasons for not voting:

• not enough information about the candidates – 31 per cent
• not interested – 14 per cent (One strain of thought is that since we pay way less tax to local authorities than we do to the national government, we’re less worried about what they’re up to)
• too busy – 12 per cent
• forgot/left it too late – 24 per cent

Will I do better next time? Who knows. But I might try these things:

  1. Follow councils and councillors on Facebook and Twitter and Google Alerts so I’m drip-fed information through the year. Some of it will sink in
  2. Attend a council meeting or two or watch the webcam to get a feel for how these folks work together
  3. Try to meet some councillors in person or at least see them in the flesh somewhere to get a sense of them as people
  4. Read the pre-election report ahead of the next election
  5. Ask/follow questions on vote.co.nz

Can councillors help me out? Yes, I think so. By doing these things:

  1. Follow me back on Facebook and Twitter and wherever else
  2. Share what you’re reading. You must read some interesting stuff – about the environment, urban planning, infrastructure, managing people or workflows or whatever. Share it. You could be a useful source of information to me
  3. Routinely post the nuts and bolts – remind me when the next meeting is, post a link to the agenda, the minutes, your schedule for the week – so I can slowly but surely learn the week-to-week workings of local government
  4. Go to events you wouldn’t normally go to. Maybe I’ll run into you one day
  5. Write more about what you believe in next time you’re standing, and answer the questions on vote.co.nz