Local government elections: Late surge in voters showing up to cast ballots in person

It's hoped voter turnout this local election may not be as low as first thought.

The ballots close at midday on Saturday, with the first results expected only hours later.

Local Government NZ president Dave Cull says despite a slow start, officials are remaining optimistic.

"Turnout's picked up in the last 24 hours. Most of the metros - apart from Wellington and Auckland - were getting up with, or pretty close to, the turnout in 2016."

A week ago, just 12.8 percent of eligible voters in Auckland had taken part. In Wellington, just 10 percent.

But despite a slow start, officials say nominations have flooded in over the past few days.

"They've taken the trouble to walk in, here in Dunedin," said Cull. "There's been a stream of people coming in downstairs to deliver it by hand, into the box."

Chief returning officer Warwick Lampp says the late surge in votes was unexpected, but it makes sense.

"The postal system as we know has been degrading a bit, I guess - people have got less confidence in the post. So that means the hand-delivered vote has been much, much more than they have been in the past."

Lampp says some areas will have a better turnout than others.

"I think it'll be patchy. Some will be over, some will be about the same. Maybe Wellington and Auckland will be slightly down a bit - but the national average won't be too far away, if not the same."

Hamilton for example has seen an uptick in participation - as of Friday, 33.08 percent had voted, ahead of the 29.96 percent who'd voted at the same point in 2016.

Voter turnout in local elections over time.
Voter turnout in local elections over time. Photo credit: DIA

Lampp says we need to move towards online voting.

"The postal system, if you look at where it was three years ago to where it was now, then think forward another three years, I think it's going to get to the point where the post is pretty unreliable."

Cull also believes the slow start highlights the need for online voting.

"We need to take a good, hard look and say, what can we do? It won't be a silver bullet, but we think that some form of online voting - as an option - is certainly needed."

Experts remain sceptical online voting can be done securely, while some have expressed doubt it'll make a difference to falling turnout, citing the failure of last year's digital-first census.

"Let's make online voting easy to vote for the muppets that are standing at the moment, or do we get people engaged, so that when they use their vote, they can vote with some degree of certainty?" Andrew Cardow, local government lecturer from Massey University, asked Newshub earlier this week.

The final results are expected later in the week, though most outcomes should be known well before then.