One Question Quiz
a gif showing different election signs on a neutral background including a very silly example of "bennie the banana" a sample of a gender-neutral person holding banans that the Electoral Commission uses as a politics free example
Gotta make sure those signs adhere to regulations! (Image: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsJuly 27, 2023

All your questions about election advertising, answered

a gif showing different election signs on a neutral background including a very silly example of "bennie the banana" a sample of a gender-neutral person holding banans that the Electoral Commission uses as a politics free example
Gotta make sure those signs adhere to regulations! (Image: Tina Tiller)

Is the sign you pass while dropping your kids at school legal? Is it even time for election signs yet? Here’s everything you need to know about the restrictions that govern election advertising. 

I’m already seeing signs, but the election is still months away – what’s going on? 

The pre-election advertising period officially starts on August 12, nine weeks before the election. From August 12, signs up to three square metres in size can be publicly displayed, regardless of local rules. Bigger signs may also be allowed depending on the location and council. Not everyone sticks to the rules: this year,  the Act Party has already got into hot water in Nelson for flouting election rules with the size of their signs.

Parties in some places are already allowed to advertise, depending on the local bylaws that govern advertising, set by councils rather than the Electoral Commission. Politics is important so there are lots of rules. 

Rules get my heart racing. Tell me more! 

Here is an incomplete list of rules that apply across Aotearoa, presented in the world’s sexiest format (the bullet point list).

  • All election advertising must have a promoter statement setting out who has authorised the sign and their address, which has to be clearly displayed. (It can be smaller than other writing on the sign as long as someone who stops to look at it can find it easily)
  • You can’t be paid to display a sign unless you’re usually paid to display signs (it’s fine if you’re a billboard company when there’s not an election on, less fine if you’re a farmer auctioning fence space exclusively during the election campaign)
  • The size of writing on election signs bigger than 1.5 square metres must be more than 12cm if on a road with a speed under 70 km/h and 16 cm on roads with a speed limit of more than 70 km/h. Rule fans, get your rulers out!
  • At a local level, there are complicated rules about who owns the land where election signs have been placed – is that corner of road by the park Waka Kotahi’s or the council’s? – and restrictions on where signs can be placed (not in the middle of the playground, sorry). 
  • Election signs can’t be within 10 metres of a place where advance voting happens, and have to be removed by election day.

If this doesn’t satisfy your interest in rules and regulations, the Electoral Commission website section on election advertising is very clearly explained, or you could peruse your local council’s bylaws to be ready to encounter any sign with the maximum amount of information at hand. 

hands hovering over a crystal ball with the election Orange Guy in it
The appearances of signs on our nation’s roads and fences augur an impending election Image: Archi Banal

What about grey areas – like for example, if there are people rather than struts of wood holding up the signs? And the fact that people who vote on the day are exposed to no street signs but people who advance vote are?

According to electoral law expert Andrew Geddis, “holding a sign on a street corner is still ‘publishing’ an ‘election advertisement’” and so would still be required to follow all the same rules as a mounted sign. 

Geddis agrees that the election-day “no advertising” rule doesn’t make much sense, especially when so many people vote in advance. Changing the rules so that signs have to be at least 10 metres from a voting place on any day, with signs removed by the Monday after the election, are among the recommendations in the electoral reviews interim report.

There are some other weird exceptions to the rules. For instance, to prevent people putting up signs for parties or candidates that haven’t been approved, you’re not allowed to put up a sign unless it’s been approved by the person it concerns. However, you’re allowed to put up a sign saying not to vote for a person or party without needing any form of approval. 

Parties sometimes get around the restrictions on election signs by putting up signage for public meetings in particularly desirable hoarding spots before the election period starts, since these can be shown at any time. Then when proper election campaigning starts they can swap their meeting sign out with a more generic election sign, having perhaps compelled some punters to rock up in the local community hall along the way.

If I think a sign is breaking the rules, what should I do? 

As you may have gathered, election advertising rules are somewhat random and obtuse, and there’s a wide range of responsibility for them. If you’re concerned about a specific sign – its size, its location – then contact your local council. If you want to complain about a sign not having a promoter statement, not being obvious whether it’s an election sign or not or being visible on election day, contact the Electoral Commission. If you think the content on a sign might be inaccurate, offensive or misleading, contact the Advertising Standards Authority

Not following the rules, especially regarding the promoter statement, is an offence that can lead to fines of up to $40,000. 

What about other kinds of advertising? Don’t the parties get money for that? 

Ah yes, the Broadcasting Allocation. Designed initially as a way to make sure that one party doesn’t hog the airwaves and the radio waves with their advertising, the government gives each party that has registered on time a portion of money to use on TV and radio promotions and online. The amount is figured out by taking into account how many people voted for that party last time, what public support for the party is like, and how much they’re polling.  This year, Labour and National both got more than $1m from the allocation and Act and the Greens $352,000.

The electoral review also recommended getting rid of the Broadcasting Allocation altogether and abolishing the restrictions on how much election advertising can appear on TV and radio.

Wait a second – online spend and broadcast money are the same? 

It’s another anachronism, Geddis says. Because the digital world is “where eyeballs are now”, it was lumped in with more traditional mediums like radio and TV. Digital spend also counts towards the limits of how much money can be spent on advertising. If you’re interested in digital advertising in Aotearoa, Google and Meta both have ad transparency centres where you can see different ads, how much money is being spent on them and who is being targeted. 

Spending limits on advertising! Tell me more. 

During the three months before an election, the registered period, spending has to stay within limits. Third party promoters have to register how much they’re spending if it’s more than $15,700. Individual candidates are allowed to spend up to $32,600, parties contesting the national election can spend up to $1.38m plus $32,600 for each electorate candidate and approved third party promoters can spend up to $391,000. 

My head is swimming with democratic enthusiasm – or is that the confusing numbers? 

Not sure, sorry. Bring on the barrage of colourful rectangles on fences and by intersections, clutched in sweaty hands, parading through all our digital pixels!

Keep going!