The Electoral Commission has asked MPs to consider legislation for future emergencies. Image: Tina Tiller

Law change needed to prepare for next election emergency, urges Electoral Commission

New Zealand’s spy boss and representatives from Facebook have also appeared at parliament’s inquiry into the 2020 election. Alex Braae reports.

Even before you look at the results, the 2020 election was unlike any other in New Zealand history. But the country needs to be better prepared for the next unexpected disruption, the Electoral Commission has told the justice select committee’s inquiry into the election, and the requires a law change so the process can be run in future emergencies. 

“In 2020, we went into lockdown five months out from the election. We relied on regulatory change for 2020 only, and the provisions have all expired now,” said Electoral Commission chief executive Alicia Wright. 

She raised the question of whether parliament would be comfortable with widespread postal voting if in-person voting isn’t possible, or whether it would be acceptable for an election to be delayed for months, rather than weeks.  

Previously the emergency provisions allowed for an event to take place on or around election day, but weren’t necessarily applicable to the circumstances faced in 2020. 

Wright said the current laws are more reflective of a First Past the Post environment, where a disaster might take place in a specific location, disrupting voting in specific electorates rather than the country as a whole. 

However under MMP, there is more fairness in having everyone in the country cast their party vote in the same electoral period. “Clearly the Covid environment was a national situation, as opposed to a local earthquake or a flood,” said Electoral Commission chair Marie Shroff.

“The pandemic wasn’t something we expected, and of course, that is exactly the nature of an emergency”, added Wright. 

In her opening remarks, Shroff talked about the complexity of delivering the election, amid Covid, two referendums, and a delay in the date, on top of the normal complexities of hiring 23,000 temporary staff to manage voting booths and count the votes.

While the Electoral Commission wants to see increased use of technology in the process of running elections, Wright said unequivocally that they do not recommend online voting. 

After a question from National MP Simeon Brown about the safety of such technology, Shroff said the use of technology would be about “speeding up processes” and being cost-effective. 

Wright added that the country should be proud of the fact that New Zealand’s elections are still run using very basic and safe methods – pen and paper voting, with ballots counted twice by hand. 

“Any automation introduced to that would be done with due consideration. I don’t imagine we’d ever want to walk away from doing these things by hand”, she said. 

“It was almost like a community effort, it was a major national event”, said Shroff. 

2020 saw the highest turnout in an election since 1999. However, there was also a rise in the number of “informal” votes – those for a party or candidate that couldn’t be counted because the voter’s intention is unclear – which has been linked to people choosing to vote only in the referendums. 

New Zealand’s rates of informal voting are considered low by international standards, particularly compared to Australia, where voting in federal elections is mandatory. 

Spy boss on the 2020 campaign

At committee hearings earlier in the week, NZSIS director-general Rebecca Kitteridge spoke to the committee about the spy agency’s impression of the election. 

She said her agency did not observe any “sustained or coordinated campaign” by state actors to influence the election, but warned that New Zealand should be aware of the threat, particularly in light of recently declassified intelligence reports into the 2016 US election. 

Facebook fronts

Facebook also presented at the committee, with director of policy for NZ and Australia Mia Garlick fronting up. 

The platform faced controversy for suspending the accounts of minor parties Advance NZ and the Outdoors Party, on the grounds that they were spreading misinformation about the ongoing pandemic. No questions were asked about these suspensions by the parliamentarians on the committee. 

Garlick said that Facebook acted directly on pandemic-related misinformation, but on other issues recognised that it would not be appropriate for a US-based multinational to decide what the truth was, and so outsourced that process to hired local fact-checkers. 

If non-pandemic content was rated false by those fact-checkers, Garlick said Facebook then de-prioritised the content within Facebook’s algorithm. Facebook’s NZ/Pacific head of public policy Nick McDonnell said the statements of politicians were exempt from Facebook’s fact-checking.

Part of the authorisation process for official party accounts is to sign up for Facebook’s transparency tools, which requires disclosure of who is behind ads and paid posts. This was made a mandatory part of the authorisation process in the middle of the year.




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