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a green questionmark and then a red cross over two houses that look like they are voting
The bill’s sponsor argues that owning property in multiple places shouldn’t mean you get more votes (Image: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsFebruary 19, 2024

A new member’s bill wants to stop landlords getting extra votes in local elections

a green questionmark and then a red cross over two houses that look like they are voting
The bill’s sponsor argues that owning property in multiple places shouldn’t mean you get more votes (Image: Tina Tiller)

Last week, a bill that proposes to abolish the ratepayers roll – which allows people who own properties in multiple council areas to vote in local elections in each of those areas – was drawn from the parliament biscuit tin. Shanti Mathias explains.

Last Thursday, a member’s bill was pulled out of the parliamentary biscuit tin in the regular ballot. Its topic was a long-time thorn in the side of New Zealanders interested in democracy: the ratepayer roll. 

The ratepayer roll is a rule that allows people and organisations that own property in areas where they do not live to vote in local council elections, because they pay rates. So if you live in Hamilton, but own a house in Ohakune, you’re eligible to vote in not just the Hamilton City Council and Waikato Regional Council elections, but the Ruapehu District Council elections too. If you own a house in Queenstown, Rotorua and Christchurch, you can vote in all those elections, but if you own three properties in Christchurch, you can only vote once. 

The rule also applies to organisations that own property, like a business that owns its premises or a church; if that organisation pays rates, it can vote. The member’s bill would remove these possibilities. 

a green tinged bungalow with rips around it looking a bit threatening
Image: Tina Tiller

OK hold up, first: what is a member’s bill?

It’s a piece of proposed legislation that is introduced to the parliamentary agenda by someone who is not a minister. Any MP can create, draft and propose a member’s bill, then they’re drawn at random and introduced to the house, where they follow the usual legislative process.

This member’s bill, Local Electoral (Abolition of the Ratepayer Roll) Amendment Bill, was introduced by the MP for Ōhāriu, Greg O’Connor. It’s a relatively straightforward piece of legislation that goes through the Local Electoral Act 2001 and the Local Government Act 2002 and removes any references to ratepayers as electors, and the rules that apply to them. If more than half of parliament votes for it – that’s 62 or more MPs – at its first reading, then the bill goes to select committee. After the select committee recommends any amendments, the bill has its second reading where it’s debated and voted on again, then is considered by the whole House, and finally passes its third reading to become an act, which is an actual law. This bill is likely to have its first reading in the coming weeks.

Why does the ratepayer roll exist in the first place? 

Local government expert Julienne Molineaux dives into a little of its history in this Spinoff article from 2019. Voting in local elections started in the 1800s and was initially solely based on being a ratepayer (and therefore limited only to those who owned property). To stand for council, you also had to own property and be a ratepayer; you could also vote multiple times in the same election if you owned multiple properties. 

“It’s an archaic practice,” Greg O’Connor told The Spinoff. “In 1890, we fixed our electoral system so you didn’t have to be a landowner to vote. It’s time the same applies local body elections too.”

The logic basically was: property owners are paying rates for services like water, roads or bridges on their own land, so they were the only ones who needed to vote. But then councils began providing other services that were less linked to property, like parks and libraries, so by the early 1900s the rules changed so that people who were living in those areas could vote too. 

“There is still a hangover from the 19th-century idea that councils exist to service properties and therefore people who pay property rates have rights over and above non-rate-paying residents,” Molineaux explained. 

Greg O'Connor arrives at parliament
Labour MP Greg O’Connor (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Do ratepayers make a difference to elections? 

In the 2022 local elections, Emma Vitz crunched the numbers on how many elections could be decided by ratepayer voters. In general, local elections have lower turnout (about 36% of eligible people voted in 2022), so a small number of electors can make a difference. 

The Wellington, Kāpiti Coast and Kaikōura mayoral elections could have been decided by ratepayer voters in 2019; ratepayer voters also had a bigger influence in the West Coast and Coromandel. There are also councillor elections and local board elections that could be influenced by ratepayers. 

In the 2022 local body elections, the Thames-Coromandel District Council had nearly triple the number of ratepayer electors compared to any other council. This may have been in part due to Gary Gotlieb, a councillor who resides in Auckland, and told The Spinoff in 2022 that he’d been making a big push to get all his friends who owned property in Coromandel to vote in the local election. “If others are jealous [of ratepayers getting two votes] then I’m sorry, that’s life!” he said, then described the drive from Auckland to Thames for council meetings as “a bloody pain”.

a satellite picture of thames, the medium sized town in the coromandel which has an absurdly high number of ratepayer voters compared to everywhere else in the country
Thames: the council that received the highest number of votes from non-resident ratepayers in 2022 local elections (Photo: Christel Yardley / Waikato Times)

“As an absentee, your interests are going to be different from local residents,” O’Connor said. “For example, you probably want rates as low as possible, because you won’t be using council services.” 

Many people who qualify to vote elsewhere do not actually register as ratepayer voters, so there are only a few thousand ratepayer voters around the country. However, they can have an outsize impact; in 2016 one person voted in eight different local council elections, and in 2022, the 1,390 ratepayer electors in the Thames-Coromandel District Council area were more than 10% of the 13,060 votes cast in the mayoral election. 

“The ratepayer roll is unfair from a democratic standpoint, and it’s also a risk,” O’Connor said. “A motivated and well-organised small group of ratepayers could get the numbers to swing an election, given the low turnout.” 

If there aren’t that many ratepayer voters, why is this bill trying to get rid of them?

As Molineaux wrote, the concept of ratepayer voters means that the principle of “one person, one vote” does not apply, which isn’t democratic. 

Advocates have also pointed out that the ratepayer roll is part of a system that makes it easy for property owners to be represented in local councils: the postal voting system means that people who don’t have to move often are much more likely to receive their ballot papers and cast a vote. 

In 2022, then-spokesperson for Renter’s United Éimhín O’Shea told The Spinoff that “local bodies exist to provide services to their residents, not their ratepayers”. A petition by the organisation described the ratepayer roll as “undemocratic” and attracted more than 1,000 signatures. Ratepayers have other means of engaging with council to be represented, like making submissions and submitting LGOIMAs. 

a stylised image of a row of red townhouses mirrored horizontally by a row of blue townhouses
(Image: Tina Tiller)

Will this bill pass? 

Members’ bills are a bit of a mixed bag, in terms of support, especially with an issue that doesn’t fall across clear left/right lines. Labour Party MPs have previously expressed interest in looking at the issue in more detail – and Labour MP Greg O’Connor will obviously be keen to get his caucus on board as the bill’s sponsor. The Green Party will probably support abolishing the ratepayer roll. Marama Davidson told One News in 2022 that she “thinks it’s unfair” – but the clip showed that she was among a number of parliamentarians who hadn’t been previously aware of the rule. 

It’s less clear what might happen with the other parties. In the same piece, Brooke van Velden told One News that the Act Party “believes in one person, one vote” but also that she “doesn’t think this is a real problem”, while Nicola Willis said that ratepayers weren’t altering proportionality and the principle of one person, one vote, and Chris Bishop was supportive of the roll remaining. 

When talking to Newsroom last October, Christopher Luxon said “one person, one vote works well”. He said he was “possibly” interested in getting rid of the ratepayer roll option. 

O’Connor said he would be talking to all the parties in parliament to try to drum up support. “I’m hopeful that once parties become aware of the implications of the practice, they will realise this bill is worth supporting.” 

Keep going!