Local Government NZ launches voter education campaign as conspiracists stand for election

 FACT Aotearoa identified 170 candidates of concern and said many were trying to hide their extreme views.
FACT Aotearoa identified 170 candidates of concern and said many were trying to hide their extreme views. Photo credit: RNZ


A first of its kind campaign is being launched today that will help voters in local body elections identify conspiracy theorists and extremists.

Local Government New Zealand is behind the move to educate voters with its guide to getting to know their local body candidates.

Anti-misinformation group FACT Aotearoa has identified candidates with extreme views or association with antivax or anti-government movements.

It had identified 170 candidates of concern and said many were trying to hide their extreme views.

Massey University Centre for Defence and Security Studies director Dr William Hoverd said some would inevitably find success.

"Extreme individuals will get onto to local body government and local body councils, simply because we have such low and apathetic voter turnout in those spaces.

"People won't even know who they're voting for or why - they'll just get on, and then if that candidate is able to engender particular support as well then it's going to make them even more powerful."

People with ideas outside the mainstream had always sought elected office, but this year it was particularly apparent as the 23-day occupation of Parliament had unified and galvanised groups with little in common other than their dissatisfaction with the government, Dr Hoverd said.

"What's new is how the vaccine mandate, dissatisfaction with the Jacinda Ardern government and the Wellington protest have fuelled the proliferation of these types of ideas and dissent in local body elections."

Low voter turnout was a critical factor in the ability for extreme candidates to gain seats of power.

An example was Tauranga. At the 2020 general election, political parties pushing conspiracy theories or extremist ideologies got about 4 percent of the vote - only marginally more than they garnered nationwide.

But in this year's by-election, candidates from those same parties picked up more than 7.5 percent despite fewer votes being cast for them compared to 2020.

That was the impact of a 40 percent turnout at the by-election compared to almost 85 percent in 2020.

Local Government New Zealand chief executive Susan Freeman-Greene agreed turnout was a problem.

"We need to do a much better job of shifting our voter turnout from the 40 percent it is at the moment closer to what happens in general elections, which is about 80 percent."

She hoped educating and empowering voters would send more to the polls.

"It's great to see more people have put their hand up to run in this year's election, compared with the previous election in 2019. But we've heard from many voters that they don't feel like they actually know enough about the candidates standing," she said.

"Everyone enrolled to vote will receive their voting papers in a couple of weeks. With District Health Boards disestablished this year, voters can just focus on councils. This is a timely reminder that while all candidates have bios in the voting papers, it's important to do your own research into people running so you know how they will work together, represent the community's views and what their policy positions are."

LGNZ's campaign encouraged people to go to meet the candidate-type events and go armed with questions such as "What do you see as the biggest challenges facing your community?", "Why are you running this election?" and "What are your thoughts around the role of local and central government in Aotearoa?".

Voters should also visit the Policy.NZ website, where candidates had provided their views on a range of topics.

FACT Aotearoa spokesperson Stephen Judd said the difficulty was many extremists were attempting to hide their views.

"Everybody has the right to run and everybody has the right to their own ideas - that's not in dispute. The issue is when people have ideas and affiliations but they don't disclose them so when the public comes to vote for them, they're not aware of what they are voting for."

National conversation needed

The Disinformation Project research fellow Dr Sanjana Hattotuwa said concerns had been known for months so the campaign was "better late than never".

He said he doubted that the public would be interested enough to carry out much research on the people they were voting for.

A lack of interest in local government was evident before the Covid-19 pandemic began which was helping fringe candidates infiltrate it and "offered the greatest chance of getting elected" and then undermining democracy from within.

"We need to have a national conversation on regulatory law, campaign finance and a whole spectrum of other issues that are going to set back electoral integrity in this country in the future."

Dr Hattotuwa said not all candidates that mainstream media were scrutinising could be called extremists.

"However, the media does have a vital role to play exposing and helping the public understand what these people stand for."

Adding to the complexity, the research his group was involved in suggested that some of the candidates had belief structures that were a lot different to what they were saying in the public arena, he told Morning Report.

FACT Aotearoa has been checking up on reports from concerned voters and spokesperson Judd said the group had been doing this by looking at candidates' earlier statements or images, including scrutiny of social media posts.

About 350 candidates had been flagged by the public and while some had been eliminated for not causing the group concern that still left about 170 to 200, Judd said.

"In terms of the concerns there's a spectrum because some people are pretty clear and other people are riding under quite bland presentation but actually in the past have expressed strong support for conspiracy thinking."

He believed it was the first time that any group in New Zealand had undertaken this type of research on electoral candidates.

The best advice for voters was to engage directly with candidates and ask them questions, whether that was in person, by email or by phoning them.

"Anyone who is running for public office should welcome that kind of engagement from the public."