Last month, the government announced proposals for how New Zealanders will go to the polls in 2020. The new legislation will allow voters to enrol on election day, make it easier for New Zealanders to vote from overseas, and could see ballots in public places like supermarkets and malls. But what does this mean for New Zealanders and their votes for the next election in 2020? Louis Laws spoke with the University of Auckland’s Lara Greaves.
Lara Greaves is a lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. She is an expert in New Zealand politics and public policy.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Louis Laws: What are some of the reasons why people do not vote?
Lara Greaves: We know feeling disempowered leaves people to be less likely to vote. So if they feel like they are not getting their say at all, then one reaction to that is to be pissed off and to go and protest about it or be an activist. But that is a minority of people. For most people there are two options: if you go to vote and you get turned away, one is to get angry and [the other] is to shrink away and not do it again. So the Electoral Commission says they are really concerned about that second group of people and to try and get that second group of people that right to vote that we all have because that is what we are meant to have in a democracy.
LL: Andrew Little announced this legislation to allow enrolment on election day for next year’s election. Do you believe these changes will have the desired effect?
LG: I think so. There is some concern that people say ‘Oh well, it is going to create more administrative burden for the Electoral Commission’, but again, the people who are not enrolled who go to vote on election day, these people are not necessarily going to now turn around and register to vote. It is a relatively small group of people and they are actually going to be heard. People in that advanced voting period at the moment have been able to vote in malls, for example, and we know that fifteen thousand people cast their vote at one of the malls on the North Shore [in Auckland] last time, but you haven’t been able to do that on election day. So they have changed one of the regulations so that you can now vote on election day in a place where there is a liquor license because that was one of those old rules where people used to try and supply voters with alcohol. So they have gotten rid of that and they have gotten rid of people having to, on election day, count the votes of the location that they are cast, so there is no need for them to set up some kind of counting secret place in malls to be able to count those votes. That mall rule is going to be quite useful for people, I think, because they will be getting their shopping and they will see the promotional stuff and they will go ‘Oh there is election on’ and they go and vote. So I think that is going to be a positive thing.
And then also, they haven’t necessarily said what they are going to do on this, which is around strengthening the process in the event of a natural disaster and also helping people with disabilities which means they can’t leave their house to vote, and making it easier to vote from overseas. So it will be interesting to see what in particular they put into law around that and what they do procedurally. So in summary, I think it is all quite positive to allow more people to vote, really.
LL: Do you kind of see this new legislation as a way of modernising our electoral system and making it more up to date and more accessible to most people?
LG: Yeah, we are getting there. I think it is a step in the right direction. Every election, the Electoral Commission put out a report with their recommendations and there are a couple of things that they haven’t looked at doing this time, things like people on the Māori roll being able to move to the general roll and back just like how people move roles when they move house. So little things like that they haven’t gone as far with, or gone as far as exploring things like online voting, giving prisoners voting rights as well, but generally these are steps in the right direction.
LL: In response, National MP Nick Smith commented by saying same-day enrolment favoured left-wing parties. Do you believe this new legislation damages the integrity of our democracy?
LG: I think there is a legitimate argument there and I think just because of the fact we are going to be voting on cannabis [decriminalisation] next election. So If I go to some mates who I know don’t usually vote and I go ‘Hey, you can vote at the mall today and you can vote on the legalisation of cannabis’, people are probably going to go and vote for that and then vote while they are there. So there is a little bit around the referendum they are going to hold that that is going to motivate turnout and that may motivate some people who haven’t been enrolled to vote [to] go and enrol. But that being said, there is a left-wing bias in those who are not enrolled to vote, so I can see them making that argument, but then on the other hand, it is one of those sort of positive steps in allowing more people to vote. We saw National in 2012 remove prisoner voting rights for example, so there are always going to be arguments like ‘Oh well, prisoners are never going to vote for National’, so National did that. And there are always going to be arguments that people who can’t get organised to vote are going to vote Labour. So there are always going to be those arguments, but fundamentally you have to move past that and move in the direction of more people being able to vote more of the time. A really concerning thing for political scientists is that decrease in voter turnout over the past few decades. It went up last election but it is a downward trend generally.
LL: Do you believe that we will see further changes with the election system, and if so, what should they be?
LG: There has been a Waitangi Tribunal hearing on prisoner voting rights and Labour has indicated that they support that, so I think something is going to happen around that and it is interesting that they haven’t announced that in this set of changes. And I think that there will be things similar to what some Scandinavian countries have done: if you turn eighteen and you are a New Zealand citizen then you automatically get enrolled. It will be interesting to see if they do that because we know that around ten percent of people are not enrolled and there are huge biases relating to age so it will be interesting to se if they go down that route. Also with regards to the Māori roll: at the moment, if you are of Māori descent you have got to wait every five years to choose whether you go on the Māori roll or the general roll and so they are looking at introducing a change there so that Māori are able to move between rolls more easily.