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Will the review change how we vote? (Image: Archi Banal)

PoliticsJanuary 17, 2024

Electoral review’s major recommendations ruled out on release of final report

a pink background with sheep and a 'voting' sign
Will the review change how we vote? (Image: Archi Banal)

The independent electoral review has released its final report, including more than a hundred recommendations. But the new minister for justice has already signalled that he won’t be taking many of the major changes on board. 

As he released the final report of the Independent Electoral Review yesterday, justice minister Paul Goldsmith simultaneously ruled out implementing several of its major recommendations.

The review was commissioned in 2022 by then justice minister Kris Faafoi, with an independent panel of experts appointed to take a comprehensive look at the electoral system, with the goals of increasing fairness, updating laws and processes and making the system clearer and more accessible. 

It received more than 7,500 submissions and in June last year released its interim report, which recommended some substantial changes including lowering the voting age to 16, reducing the party vote threshold, and holding a referendum on the length of the parliamentary term.

The final report retains those recommendations, but while the new government has not yet released its formal response to the review, Goldsmith said in a press release that it would not be accepting many of the bolder recommendations – including increasing the number of MPs in accordance with population growth, allowing prisoners to vote and lowering the voting age to 16.  

Here’s a quick round-up of the major recommendations in the final report and how the government’s immediate response to them. The formal response will likely include more details about whether the government plans to implement any of the other recommendations, including around election financing. 

Yes to a four-year term referendum

The electoral review has recommended a referendum on whether New Zealand adopts a four-year electoral term, or retains the current three-year cycle. A referendum, rather than a straight-up endorsement of a longer term, is an attempt to balance arguments for and against a longer term, the report says. With one year out of three currently consumed by campaigning, a longer term could make the government more effective, create more time for scrutiny of legislation in select committees and save money on election costs. But these advantages aren’t guaranteed, and with fewer checks on the New Zealand government than systems with a lower and upper house there’s an argument that this would reduce the power of voters to change governments they’re unhappy with. 

a yellow sign reading WEED VOTE YES
The last referendums were around legalising cannabis and end of life choice in 2020 (Photo: Lynn Grieveson/Newsroom via Getty Images)

The new coalition government is certainly supportive of a longer term referendum. In 2021, Act had a member’s bill proposing the government adopt a four-year term. Instigating a referendum on a four-year term was part of the National-Act coalition agreement that formed the current government. 

“The Independent Electoral Review’s endorsement of Act’s plan for a referendum on the parliamentary term is a bright spot amid a list of otherwise dopey ideas,” Act leader David Seymour said in a press release after the final report came out yesterday. 

There’s historical precedent to a referendum on term length – a longer term was also recommended by the panel that proposed MMP. Referendums in 1967 and 1990 rejected extending term length. The Future for Local Government review has also recommended that local government elections in New Zealand move to a four year cycle. 

Te Tiriti and elections

The review says that the rights of Māori to be represented in the political system, as laid out in te Tiriti, have not always been applied in the New Zealand political system. The panel recommends clarifying the role for te Tiriti o Waitangi in how elections are run and governed. This includes making upholding te Tiriti principles a key objective of the Electoral Commission under the Electoral Act. The review also recommends working with Māori to enable Māori governance over Māori electoral data and creating a new fund for engaging with Māori communities and candidates throughout the election process. 

a map of the maori electorates
The seven Māori electorates.

An “entrenchment” rule in New Zealand’s electoral law means that some provisions, such as the age when you are allowed to vote, cannot be changed unless 75% of parliament supports them – meaning there must be widespread support for any changes. The review advocates that the existence of Māori electorates be included in this entrenchment provision. Because Māori are younger and more likely to be imprisoned than the New Zealand population as a whole, the review panel said that changing voting eligibility for 16-year-olds and prisoners would also help uphold the Treaty. 

Goldsmith did not comment on these recommendations, but given the review of legislation referencing the Treaty principles promised in the National-NZ First coalition agreement, the support of a Treaty Principles Bill to first reading in the National-Act agreement and the varying degrees of scepticism of all parties towards co-governance, it seems unlikely they will be taken up. In the Act press release, Seymour confirmed “special protection of Māori interests” would be one of the recommendations his party would block.

No votes for prisoners or kids

In June 2020, the Labour-led government amended electoral eligibility to allow prisoners who had sentences of less than three years to vote. The electoral review has gone one further, recommending that all prisoners should be allowed to vote “because disenfranchisement should not form part of someone’s punishment”. It also recommended that people in prison should be allowed to stand for parliament. 

Reviewing research from other countries, the review also recommended that those 16 and over be given the right to vote, as “16-year-olds are just as capable of making informed decisions about how to vote as 18-year-olds”. A lower voting age could also increase political engagement. Because elections occur every three years at the moment, this would mean in practice that many people would still be casting their first votes at 17 or 18 instead. 

a group of smiling young people in front of the beehive
Some of the original group of campaigners for Make It 16, advocating for younger people to be able to vote.

Young people supporting the idea of voting for those 16 and over filed a complaint in the Supreme Court in November 2022, resulting in a declaration that not allowing 16-year-olds to vote was age discrimination and inconsistent with the Bill of Rights.

Goldsmith said that both these recommendations would be “ruled out immediately”.  The previous Labour government had initiated the legislative process to allow 16-year-olds to vote in local government elections, with a law passing its first reading, but this will presumably not be supported by the new government. 

Another recommendation Goldsmith ruled out was the repeal of the offence of “treating” voters with food, beverage and entertainment before elections.

Electorate ratio and MMP threshold

The report recommended that the ratio of list and electorate seats remain the same. At the moment, new electorates are added when the population grows, so that each electorate represents about the same number of people; because the number of MPs has been 120 since MMP came in (unless there is an overhang, as happened in 2023), this means that there are fewer list seats over time. In the first MMP election there were 65 electorate and 55 list seats; in 2023, there were 72 electorates and 48 list seats. 

The electoral review report says that maintaining a ratio of three electorate seats to two list seats would mean that parliament continues to represent people proportionally, as the MMP system attempts to do, and maintains diversity – more women and Māori are elected from lists than electorates. This would mean that the size of parliament would slowly grow. However, this recommendation has also been ruled out by Goldsmith.

a white blonde woman in formal business dress surrounded by 'orange guy' mascots
Deborah Hart, chair of the Independent Electoral Review. (Image: Archi Banal)

Another recommendation to make sure people’s votes are represented would be to lower the threshold for a party to get into parliament from 5% of the vote to 3.5% of the vote, about 100,000 votes based on the current Aotearoa population. Other countries with proportional systems have lower thresholds – Denmark’s is 2%, and Austria and Sweden’s are 4%. The review said that 5% was a barrier to new parties, and created more “wasted votes”. Neither Goldsmith nor Seymour commented on this proposal, so its fate remains unclear. 

Where does political money come from?

Private donors are a huge source of cash and controversy in New Zealand politics. Parties also get cash from the government’s broadcasting allocation to spend on advertising. The review panel has a number of suggestions to increase transparency and reduce fears of undue influence on politics. This includes changing the rules so only individuals registered to vote can donate; corporations, iwi, trade unions and private trusts would not be allowed to give parties money. It also suggests increasing the frequency of donation reporting during election years, lowering the amount that can be donated anonymously to $500, and placing spending limits on parties for advertising. Instead of the broadcasting allocation, which provides money for advertising, the report recommends a pool of state funding, with a base amount for all parties, then more depending on size. 

Goldsmith has yet to rule out adopting these recommendations but, Act, which gets more private donations per MP than any other political party, was not supportive. “Taxpayer funding for political parties would have a corrosive effect on our democracy,” Seymour said.

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