The turnout rate in the 2014 General Election was 77.9%, and at the time of the 2017 General Election this had climbed to 79.3%. This is not a huge change, but care must be taken not to be misled. Just because the overall turnout rate was about the same does not mean that the turnout rates of the various demographics within New Zealand society all remained the same. This article examines the deeper trends.
The most striking thing about the turnout rates in the 2017 General Election is that, despite the alarm about the huge numbers of immigrants New Zealand has absorbed in recent years, the election marked a sharp increase in turnout rate among the New Zealand-born.
The correlation between being New Zealand-born and turnout rate became much more positive from 2014 to 2017, from a significantly negative -0.24 to -0.10. This is arguably the story of the election and explains how we ended up with a nationalist party holding the balance of power.
Among the four major parties, the correlation with turnout rate and voting for a particular party remained very similar from 2014 to 2017 for National (0.76 to 0.75), Labour (-0.70 to -0.72) and the Greens (0.28 to 0.27). These slight falls were balanced by a fairly strong increase for New Zealand First (-0.09 to -0.02).
This doesn’t necessarily mean that there was a swing towards New Zealand First – it just means that the sort of person who is a New Zealand First supporter was more likely to vote this time around. Who they actually voted for requires further analysis.
If we look at the ethnic demographics, we can see that the correlation between being of a certain race and turnout rate between 2014 and 2017 strengthened for Kiwis of European descent (from 0.71 to 0.81) and for Maoris (from -0.75 to -0.68). These are the two ethnic groups most likely to support New Zealand First.
Pacific Islanders and Asians, who were more likely to be born overseas, were less likely to turn out to vote. The correlation between being a Pacific Islander and turnout rate was -0.58 in 2017, out from -0.44 in 2014, which makes them now almost as disenfranchised as Maoris. The correlation between being Asian and turnout rate was -0.22 in 2017, out from -0.10.
One reason for this is that even though large numbers of immigrants have turned up in New Zealand recently, many of these newcomers don’t seem to feel much of a connection with the country and so are not motivated to vote.
Where it gets complicated is that the correlation between median age and turnout rate increased from 2014 to 2017, from 0.77 to 0.79. This means that the people who voted this time around were older, and older people tend to vote National – but these voters did not vote National.
The correlation between being aged 20-29 and turnout rate became a lot more negative from 2014 to 2017, from -0.21 to -0.26. The correlation between being aged 30-49 and turnout rate followed a similar pattern, weakening from 0.21 to 0.13. The predictable result of this is older people voting more, and indeed we can see that the correlation between being aged 50-64 and turnout rate increased from 0.70 in 2014 to 0.73 in 2017, while the correlation between being aged 65+ and turnout rate increased from 0.64 in 2014 to 0.67 in 2017.
Unsurprisingly, then, the correlation between being on the pension and turnout rate increased from 2014 to 2017 (from 0.50 to 0.56). In fact, all of the benefit types apart from the student allowance also strengthened. The correlation between being on the invalid’s benefit and turnout rate strengthened from -0.53 in 2014 to -0.43 in 2017, and the correlation between being on the unemployment benefit and turnout rate strengthened from -0.76 in 2014 to -0.72 in 2017.
This is supported by the fact that voters were more likely to be New Zealand-born in 2017, because there is a significant correlation between being New Zealand-born and being on a benefit.
More information comes from noting that several correlations between belonging to privileged demographic categories and turnout rate decreased from 2014 to 2017. This applied to people working in information media and telecommunications (0.06 to -0.01), financial and insurance services (0.08 to 0.01) and professional and scientific services (0.28 to 0.23). Also, the correlation between having never smoked tobacco and turnout rate fell from 0.35 in 2014 to 0.25 in 2017.
On the other hand, the correlations between more working-class occupations and turnout rate increased, most strikingly so in the occupations that involved the most personal contact. The correlation between working in a particular occupation and turnout rate increased from 2014 to 2017 in the case of education and training (-0.10 to -0.03), healthcare and social assistance (-0.04 to 0.05), arts and recreation services (0.04 to 0.09) and hospitality (-0.09 to -0.01).
A poorer cross-section of the population turned out to vote in 2017, which is another clue as to where Labour won. All of the correlations between being in an income band below $70K and turnout rate strengthened from 2014 to 2017, and all of the correlations between being in an income band above $100K and turnout rate weakened from 2014 to 2017. The correlation between being in the $70-100K income bracket and turnout rate remained exactly the same, at 0.38.
Another striking correlation is that between being part-time employed and turnout rate, which rose sharply from 0.45 to 0.58 between 2014 and 2017. This, coupled with what we know about income brackets and turnout rate, suggests that it was the people on the margins between doing well and doing poorly who shifted from National to Labour. It may be that these people saw the promise of the country being lost, or felt that they missed out on all the loot of the last nine years.
Perhaps the clearest sign of where National lost the election comes from the correlations with the flag referendum. The correlation between voting National in 2017 and voting to change the flag in the second flag referendum was an extremely strong 0.93, which tells us that it was pretty much only National voters to wanted to change the flag to the National Party version.
These National Party supporters, being generally well enfranchised, have very high turnout rates. The correlation between turnout rate in 2014 and voting to change the flag was 0.75, exactly the same as the one between turnout rate in 2017 and voting to change the flag. However, the correlation between turnout rate in the second flag referendum and turnout rate in the general election increased from 2014 (0.86) to 2017 (0.92).
This suggests that many of the new people who voted in the 2017 General Election but did not vote in the 2014 one were Labour supporters who came from generally National-supporting demographics (i.e. wealthy but not too wealthy, old but not quite a pensioner, white, employed and part-time employed, male). Had they been National supporters, the correlation between turnout rate and voting to change the flag would have increased from 2014 to 2017, because the vast bulk of people who wanted to change the flag were National supporters.
We can say that it was here that the centre, and thereby the 2017 General Election, was lost by the National Party.
The second edition of Understanding New Zealand, by Dan McGlashan, was published by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2017/18. It contains all the analysis of Kiwi voting patterns and demographics you could ever want!