Even before Covid, the idea that spending too long away from New Zealand should lose you the right to vote made little sense. Now’s the ideal time to do away with the rule for good, argues Andrew Geddis.
Covid’s arrival, and our collective response to that arrival, emphasises the fundamental importance of community. But at the same time, it raises multiple questions about what community actually means. Does a local community have the right to decide to impose special protections for its members (think here of iwi checkpoints)? Which part of the community do we collectively support through Covid’s financial hit (the business community, the arts community, the sporting community)? What demands can the community legitimately impose upon individuals who may not want to comply with them (staying at home, masking up, getting vaccinated)?
One particular way in which our idea of community has come under strain is the division between those of us who are within our national borders and those of us who are outside of them. We’ve always had something of a love-hate relationship with the wider world. On the one hand, there’s the great OE tradition and the pride we feel when “one of us” proves to be “world class” and makes it on the international stage. On the other, there’s a lurking suspicion of those of us who choose to base themselves outside of Aotearoa; a feeling that they’ve judged us as wanting and so turned their back on home.
In the years BC (Before Covid), globalisation swung the pendulum in favour of the former view. You could make your life and your career abroad, with Aotearoa just a few hours flying time away (depending how far across the globe you ventured). Living in Sydney or London or Dubai didn’t mean you’d abandoned home. You’d just taken Aoteoroa out into the world and given yourself a bit of a commute any time you wanted to return.
Then Covid arrived and the team of five million committed first to eliminating the virus, and then to keeping it eliminated. To do so, our borders went from being a place we just had our passports quickly stamped to being somewhere you must stay for at least 14 days, provided that you even could get a spot in the dreaded MIQ system. Making a life in Sydney or London or Dubai went from proudly flying the flag abroad to being a potentially existential threat to our national health and wellbeing.
So the pendulum swung to the hate side. New Zealand citizens or residents who stayed or went overseas post-Covid were putting themselves outside of lifeboat Aotearoa. They’d decided to separate themselves from our community. Yes, they could still return and rejoin us, but only on our tight conditions and timetables. And, come our next round of local and national elections, these conditions and timetables that we’ve chosen to impose on those of us who are beyond our borders may well collide with another way we conceive of community – the right to vote.
Being able to cast a vote come election time constitutes a membership badge in our political community. It recognises that you, along with your individual interests and judgments on issues, are worthy of recognition in the process through which we collectively govern ourselves. We will count your vote, because you ought to count.
Our law then confers that political community membership in this way; every New Zealand citizen, as well as every person with the right to reside in Aotearoa indefinitely, is entitled to vote as long as they are 18 or older and have at some point lived in Aotearoa for at least a year.
Even within this broad franchise – and by permitting all permanent residents to vote, it is broader than in any other comparator nation – questions arise. Our Court of Appeal currently is considering the rationale for limiting recognition of political community membership to those 18 or older. And why should a person born in New Zealand and living here for the first year of their life before moving to Australia be able to vote, while a New Zealand citizen born in Australia must wait for a year after returning home before they can do so?
Furthermore, having granted this general franchise, our law then further narrows it in specific cases. There are some groups of people that have their entitlement to vote temporarily removed from them. Anyone who committed a “corrupt practice” at an election cannot vote in the next one. Prisoners, and mentally ill people that have committed criminal offences, who are detained for three or more years cannot vote until their release. And citizens or permanent residents who have lived overseas for too long without returning home cannot vote until they do so.
Covid now casts a particularly harsh light on this last disqualification criteria, given that our method of combatting it has effectively made lots of people into involuntary exiles. The basic rationale for removing the right to vote from those deemed to have been away from home for too long – three years for citizens; one year for permanent residents – seems obvious. If voting is a badge of membership in our political community, then choosing to remain outside of that community means you lose it. But how strong, really, is this apparently obvious reason?
Most immediately, what if you haven’t actually chosen to stay away, but rather we are telling you that you’re not allowed to come back? That’s the position tens of thousands of people find themselves in at the moment, as the oversubscribed applications for MIQ slots attest. And that’s without counting those citizens and permanent residents currently overseas who aren’t even trying to travel here at the moment because they know how difficult it is. Should they lose the right to vote because they put off visiting home again until it doesn’t involve having to spend two weeks in a hotel room (if you can get one)? I mean, think of how we gaze in horror at places in the US that have 11 hour polling queues and decry the way that this strips people of their democratic rights.
Maybe overseas travel will have resumed on a reasonably free basis by the time our local body elections roll around in October next year, or before our next general election in 2023. But you wouldn’t want to bet on it. And, even if it does, there’ll have been at least two years when coming home has been incredibly challenging, if not impossible. Is it really right to exclude citizens or permanent residents from our political community as a result?
More fundamentally, however, there’s the question as to why citizens or permanent residents who haven’t visited Aotearoa for a period of time ought to be excluded from voting at all. To return to where we began, the argument boils down to one of ongoing connection to Aotearoa’s community. After all, if you can’t even be bothered coming back here for three years/one year, why should the rest of us listen to your views about by whom and how the country should be governed ?
But, even in the BC era your physical presence in Aotearoa was a pretty poor proxy for demonstrating such ongoing connection. It means that a citizen who has lived in the USA for a decade with no interest at all in what’s happening in Aotearoa gets back the right to vote as soon as they transit through Auckland en route to Sydney. Conversely, a Tokyo based citizen who devours The Spinoff’s Bulletin every morning, watches parliament’s question time online and engages in furious #nzpol tweet wars still loses the right to vote the day they’ve been outside of New Zealand for three years continuously.
That makes little to no sense. And don’t just take my word for it. It’s something the Canadian Supreme Court recognised back in 2019 when they struck down Canada’s rule that expat citizens who reside outside the country for more than five years lose the right to vote. Here’s what the majority concluded:
“In sum, the world has changed. Canadians are both able and encouraged to live abroad, but they maintain close connections with Canada in doing so. The right to vote is no longer tied to the ownership of property and bestowed only on select members of society. And citizenship, not residence, defines our political community and underpins the right to vote.”
In such a world, denying the right to vote to those citizens and permanent residents who’ve chosen to dwell beyond our national borders is just wrong. And when you add on top of that a global pandemic that fundamentally disrupts travel around the world, it becomes more than wrong. It becomes absolutely indefensible.