Opinion: What American politicians can learn from New Zealand’s election

Increased familiarity between constituents and elected representatives could improve trust in government and voter turnout.

When I first saw Jacinda Ardern, then-deputy leader of the New Zealand Labour Party, it wasn’t at a town hall meeting, political rally, or speech at a prestigious university. It was at a favorite coffee shop in Auckland’s Mount Albert neighborhood, where campaign volunteers gathered before a day of door-knocking. Jacinda briefly addressed everyone, then sat down in a booth, inviting anyone to approach her with questions.

I’m a political science major and spent the first part of my summer interning with the New Zealand Labour Party’s Auckland campaign team. One thing that stood out to me about politics in New Zealand is the casualness. Members of Parliament hang out at popular flea markets, knock on doors of their constituents, and even grab drinks with campaign volunteers after events. From an American’s perspective, it seemed like Kiwis had unbelievable levels of access to their representatives and major political candidates.

Now, just a few months after that casual coffee shop encounter with Ardern, she is Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party, and could be elected Prime Minister in the Sept. 23 election. Ardern was named leader of the party in early August, after then party-leader Andrew Little stepped down. Since then, the Labour Party has jumped 20 points in the polls. The increase is largely attributed to Ardern’s immense popularity, which media outlets have dubbed “Jacindamania.”

Jacinda is approachable, accessible and comes across like a real living and breathing human being compared to our overly coached and scripted politicians here in the U.S. She manages her own social media accounts, which read more like a friendly aunt than the future leader of a country.

A few weeks ago, I noticed that someone I know in New Zealand had shared an article about Ardern, with a Facebook caption along the lines of “What Jacinda’s REALLY like behind the cameras.” I was taken aback, since I assumed the article was implying Ardern behaved differently in real life than on-camera — which is probably what a similar story would have been about in the U.S. But when I clicked to the article, I found that it was actually a cartoon arguing that Ardern is just as friendly and caring as she seems.

While Ardern is an extreme example, accessibility is a trait shared by many representatives in New Zealand. I spent countless hours knocking on doors in Auckland’s Manukau East region, and found that residents had an equally high level of familiarity with their parliamentary representative, Jenny Salesa. And by familiarity, I don’t just mean that residents knew her name. Many of them told me they had just attended one of her events, or had seen her at a community meeting. One can hardly imagine this happening in the U.S. I’ve lived in the same Congressional District for my entire life, and can’t think of a single time when I saw her at an event in my hometown, or was notified of an upcoming meeting.

It seems as if New Zealand politicians place the onus on themselves to be known to the communities they represent, while in the U.S. the responsibility is placed on citizens to seek out their representatives. In addition to holding their own campaign-focused events, I saw New Zealand politicians show up at popular events such as the Otara Market, and knock on the doors of constituents. And they weren’t just knocking on a few doors as a photo-op; they participated in the grassroots-level campaigning.

Obviously, U.S. politicians don’t always have this capacity, and there would be potential security concerns with providing our residents with the same amount of access to politicians that Kiwis receive. But, they still could be doing more to ensure they’re connecting with their constituents, starting with offering more frequent town halls. Less than one-third of U.S. representatives hosted town halls during August’s break from the legislative session. Just 40 percent of Democrats and 18 percent of Republicans hosted public, in-person events with constituents in August.

In addition to holding more town hall style events, U.S. politicians also could make themselves more approachable by making more frequent casual appearances in their communities. Seeing New Zealand politics first-hand also made me realize how difficult it is to learn about your elected representative in the U.S. if you aren’t predisposed with an interest and knowledge of politics. A resident who knows very little about politics might feel intimidated to show up at an event titled “Town Hall” or focused on a specific policy issue. But they might feel comfortable going to their local coffee shop for a meet-and-greet with their representative.

If American voters felt more of a personal connection to candidates, they’d probably be more inclined to vote. When I began door-knocking in Manukau East, I was told the electorate was important because it had a low voter turnout. Imagine my surprise when I learned that turnout in the 2011 election was around 67 percent. This may have been relatively low in New Zealand, but seemed high compared to the United States, where 55 percent of the voting-age population votes, compared to New Zealand’s 73 percent.

Ultimately, there are many reasons why I wish I could live in New Zealand permanently —stunning landscapes, friendly people, and I’m a better driver on the left side of the road. But if I could pick just one thing for the U.S. political system to emulate, it would be increased accessibility to our elected representatives.

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