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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONPoliticsOctober 12, 2023

Voting in New Zealand is easy – except, sometimes, on election day

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Has the Electoral Commission gone too big on early voting at the expense of on-the-day polling places? Possibly, says Graeme Edgeler.

New Zealand makes voting very easy.

You don’t need ID. You can vote in any voting place in the entire country. On any day during early voting period, or on election day itself. If you are not enrolled to vote, election officials will help you enrol at the voting place when you go to cast your vote. You can vote from overseas. If you go to the busiest voting place in the whole country, at the busiest time on election day, you’ll probably still be done in 15 minutes.

If you are blind, partially blind, or have a physical disability that means you are unable to vote without assistance, you can speak with a series of people from the Electoral Commission who will take your vote by phone dictation. I still get misty-eyed thinking about the select committee evidence detailing the experience of a voter who had been able to use the service the first time it was offered (and who had been able to cast an actual secret ballot for the first time ever).

The Electoral Commission posts “Easy Vote” cards to those enrolled early enough, but you don’t need to take this with you. It just makes it easier for the person helping you vote in the voting place to find your name in the printed electoral roll they’re going to cross it off in (the numbers printed on it are the page and line number of the physical electoral roll just to make things a little quicker).

And on election day itself, if you are at work, and did not have a reasonable opportunity to vote beforehand, and 3pm rolls around and you haven’t had a chance to do so yet, you get the rest of the day off – with pay – just so you can.

These things aren’t true in a lot of countries.

In Ireland, unless the reason you are not in Ireland is that you are a diplomat or in the Defence Forces, you have to be physically present in Ireland to vote.

In parts of the United States, queueing to vote can sometimes take all day.

In the United Kingdom, the equivalent of the Easy Vote card is the “poll card”. Like the Easy Vote card, you don’t have to take it with you, but unlike the Easy Vote card it tells you when you can vote, and at which voting place. And you can only vote at that one voting place. If you can’t make it there, you can apply for a proxy vote, or to vote by post and depending on where you live, you may have to apply up to 14 days before the election to do this.

Americans wait in line to cast their votes at a Maryland high school, November 03, 2020. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

But New Zealand isn’t perfect. There are naturally minor slip-ups each election: when you employ 20,000 temporary staff members, one election official misunderstanding one thing or another and making a mistake is a risk. And this election, there are some concerns about the distance people may need to travel if they wish to vote on election day.

The concern is raised specifically about a few voting places that will be open for a short time during early voting, but won’t be open on election day itself. For example, people who live in rural Taranaki near Uruti School had the option of voting at the school last Sunday, but if they want to vote on election day itself, the nearest voting place will be Mimi School, approximately 11 km away. On election day in 2020, both schools were used (Mimi school seeing 123 votes general votes cast, and Uruti 55).

If you live rurally, there’s a chance that finding a place to vote on election day may be a challenge (Photo: Getty)

Some voting places only being used during early voting is to be expected: the Kelburn campus of the Victoria University has early voting Monday-Friday only, because basically no-one attends university on the weekend. Schools are frequently used for election day voting on the Saturday the election is held, but obviously can’t be used for daily early voting because students are using them. Despite claims by some, these places are not closing early. All voting places being used on election day will open at 9am and close at 7pm (if you’re still in the queue at 7pm you still get to vote).

That some people who live rurally will need to travel some distance to vote is not new, but there is a question about exactly how far we might expect people living in or near small settlements to have to travel to vote on election day itself, and questions around how and when early voting options provided in rural areas are advertised.

The 2011 election was the first election at which New Zealand offered voters the opportunity to vote early without needing a reason. The numbers voting early have only grown since, and were especially high at the 2020 election. But extensive early voting opportunities come at a cost. Every dollar spent by the Electoral Commission employing vote takers in large numbers in the period leading up to election day, is a dollar that it cannot spend on election day itself on opening up a few extra voting places in rural areas.

The Electoral Commission doesn’t set its own budget. Like other agencies funded by taxes, it makes its case to the government and to parliament for the funding it requires. My guess is that the Electoral Commission probably has the balance close to right – ensuring that access by New Zealanders to voting places is relatively painless. But it’s definitely possible that at the margins, in a few small rural settlements, the balance has gone slightly too far: maybe neither Uruti School nor Mimi School should have had early voting at all, and both should have had an election day voting place, as they did in 2020? Equally, at 11 km apart, maybe only one of the schools really needs to offer election day voting, given the small number of people in the area. But neither was even close to being the least used voting place in Taranaki in 2020.

Even with greater use of early voting, we should ensure that people who want to vote on election day have the opportunity to do so relatively easily. If that means providing the opportunity to vote on election day at two rural schools 11km apart, it is probably a price worth paying. In which case, offering slightly fewer early voting opportunities, or funding the Electoral Commission at a slightly higher level is something that should be considered.

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