Between protests at Parliament and a rise in conspiracies, extremism has been felt more strongly in New Zealand this year - and those influences are now stretching to our local body elections.

Anti-vaccination and anti-mandate group Voices For Freedom has reportedly said it wants to make New Zealand “ungovernable” and has been standing candidates in this year’s local body elections. 

There’s generally a lower voter turnout in those elections and political analyst Dr Lara Greaves says this means there’s a chance some of them will succeed in winning local office.

“I think there’s a reasonable likelihood that some people with more extreme views will get elected this time around, because basically there's not enough candidates,” she says.

This year there are worries from organisations like the Disinformation Project - an independent research group studying misinformation and disinformation in Aotearoa - that some local government roles won’t be filled or will go uncontested because not enough people are interested in standing for election. 

“A lot of people are elected unopposed or elected with as few as hundreds of votes, so … if you are from a more extreme point of view, you can kind of rally people through social media or within your different groups to get behind you and actually turn out to vote.”

Greaves says this is a good argument to push for higher voter turnout if people do reject disinformation in politics.

“There are certain circumstances in which you can see some [people with] more extreme views getting elected and that's why they've been exploiting this, because they know that turnout is low [for local elections]. 

“They know that they can play the turnout game to actually get people elected.”

So, what then?

Greaves says there’s not a huge amount that more extreme candidates can do at a council or local board level.

“I think the concern would be [these candidates would] have that platform,” she says.

“It's that subtle chipping away at where mainstream ideology is rather than making anything ungovernable.”

Greaves also says the more extreme candidates that get elected, the greater the concerns over a climate of fear or harassment in politics.

FACT Aotearoa, a volunteer organisation dedicated to exposing people spreading misinformation, says they have found many people with more extreme views running for local office.

“We asked the public for tip-offs in mid-August; now we have 180 people on our list who have expressed false information,” the group’s spokesperson, who asked not to be named due to safety concerns, says.

“What’s interesting there is that some of those people are really out and proud about the way they think. They’re on Facebook, Instagram, there’s candidate biographies [which] voters would strongly disagree with.”

FACT says groups such as Voices For Freedom told election candidates in its email list to avoid saying they were members of the organisation.

It argues candidates should have been grilled more about political ties but says the growth in mass media has prevented this from happening.

“There’s been a real change in news media over the last two or three decades. A couple of decades ago, there would’ve been a higher level of scrutiny on candidates, partly from local media and partly from their opponents. 

“In the [media] environment we’re in now, candidates don’t face the same pressure. There aren’t many ways to find out much about a candidate beyond what they choose to put out there.”

Though many are outspoken about their views, FACT says roughly half the candidates they found are quiet about their extreme ideas.

It says this is a concern for people who may not know who they are voting for.

“[Everyone] has a right to run, no one should stop them from running. If people [want to] vote for them, they can vote for them.

“It is concerning though when [voters] don’t know what they’re getting; when people are running as one thing, and might be something else when they’re elsewhere.”

Getting the vote up

Another concern for local body elections is low voter turnout - and every vote really does matter.

Te Tari Taiwhenua Department of Internal Affairs says turnout was 57% in 1989 but has stayed below 50% since 2004 and was only 42% in 2019.

Chief Executive of Ko Tātou Local Government NZ Susan Freeman-Greene says dwindling voter numbers are not unusual for local body elections and more needs to be done to make local elections more accessible and engaging.

“Local body elections typically have low voter turnout at about 40% compared with central government elections which typically get about 80% voter turnout.”

Ko Tātou LGNZ has put together some tips and tricks on getting to know who’s on your ballot and also say voters should visit to see candidate profiles and make more informed decisions on the ballot.

Voters are also encouraged to meet candidates at public events and ask questions on policy and working with the community.

Greaves agrees that more needs to be done to get people interested in local elections.

“I think for the kind of people that are voters, it's really important to try to get the people you have personal relationships with out there. Your flatmates, your whānau, your partner, your friends, see if you can get a couple of other people to vote and sit down with them and figure it out,” she says.

“Throw a voting party, make it a bit fun, dress up in orange, just try to make people vaguely interested because it does make a difference.”

More stories:

54% of young people want to be influencers - but is that a bad thing?

“I just wanted to do something where I get paid for doing me.”

Face value: The petition to remove the Monarchy from our money

"We've got a couple of years now to figure out what symbols represent us as a country.”

Why Google Maps still sucks at pronouncing Māori place names

“Starting route to towel-rung-ah.”