< June 2024 newsletter


Submission: Local Government (Electoral Legislation and Māori Wards and Māori Constituencies) Amendment Bill

 

Written submission

Thank you for the opportunity to provide feedback on the Local Government (Electoral Legislation and Māori Wards and Māori Constituencies) Amendment Bill.

Democracy Action supports the policy of enabling local electors to take part in their local elections and decisions about their local electoral arrangements.

We are broadly supportive of the Bill. We support:

  • the restoration of the right to a binding referendum on the establishment or ongoing use of Māori wards or constituencies;
  • the outcome of the referendum is binding on the council for the next two local government elections;
  • the option for local authorities to either unmake Maori wards or hold a binding poll at the upcoming 2025 local elections;
  • the removal of requirement (under the Local Government Electoral Legislation Act 2023) for councils to consider Māori wards every six years during the representation reviews if they have not yet established Māori wards.

Regarding the postal delivery of voting papers to electors, we support the extension of the delivery period for voting papers from 6 days to 14 days, and the extension of the voting period to a total of 32 and a half days.

Recommendations

While generally supportive of the bill, we offer for your consideration recommendations on two different aspects.

1 (a). Firstly, we propose a supplementary amendment. This amendment would empower communities to directly influence the establishment of Māori wards and Māori constituencies. We propose that, when a council is considering whether to establish Māori wards, before they make their decision, the council be required to initiate a binding referendum to allow the community to determine the outcome of this proposal. Democratic fairness dictates that the community should have the final say on any significant constitutional changes, such as the introduction of Māori wards and constituencies.

1(b). All Māori wards and constituencies that have been established without being subject to a democratic referendum be disestablished.

  1. Our second recommendation concerns the postal voting method. The integrity of our

electoral procedure is critical to upholding our democratic system. However, there are several significant flaws in the postal voting method. We submit that current practices are not robust enough to ensure that all votes are cast legitimately. There are insufficient meaningful checks and balances, a specific requirement of the Electoral Act 2001 (section 4). The flaws in the system include the following:

    • the inability to identify who completed the voting documents delivered to the ballot box.
    • The lack of requirement for voters to demonstrate that they are residentially qualified to vote in a particular ward; that the voter declares that they live at an address in a specific ward is considered sufficient.
    • When updating the electoral roll, voters are not required to provide evidence of their residential address.
    • The electoral roll letter sent to voters does NOT require them to confirm that their details on the electoral roll are correct. Instead, it asks voters to update their details if they are not accurate. If someone has moved, they will very likely not receive the letter in the first place.
    • There is no requirement for voters to identify their authenticity on the ballot paper (or returning envelope).
    • Voting envelopes delivered to the wrong addresses, thereby leaving the system vulnerable to voter fraud.
    • People not receiving their voting papers in time for the election or not at all.
    • Reportedly, a lack of post boxes and an unreliable service, especially in rural areas.

Evidence of the flaunting of electoral law is shown in the screenshots copied from social media below.

We recommend such weaknesses in the postal voting system be urgently addressed.


Oral submission

Thank you for the opportunity to provide feedback on the Local Government (Electoral Legislation and Māori Wards and Māori Constituencies) Amendment Bill. I am presenting this submission on behalf of Democracy Action, a group of concerned citizens who have a commitment to democracy and the rule of law and believe in a fair and just society where all citizens enjoy equal rights.

In our written submission, we express our endorsement of certain aspects of the bill, but I would specifically like to address the areas that we have concerns about.

Firstly, I would like to address the provisions relating to the reinstatement of polls on Māori wards and Māori constituencies.

While generally supportive of the intention of the bill, that is, to enable local electors to take part in decisions about their local electoral arrangements, we offer the following recommendations for your consideration.

The new law as currently drafted would require communities to gain the signatures of 5% of the electorate to require any councils which may decide to create Māori wards to hold a referendum. However, we suggest modifying the bill to give communities the right to directly influence the establishment of Māori wards and Māori constituencies. We are calling for an amendment that would require any councils seeking racially based representation to first hold a binding referendum. This would empower the community to determine the outcome of such a proposal without imposing on the citizenry the onerous task of collecting 5% of voters’ signatures to force a poll.

I want to share my personal experience about the challenges of getting these signatures. As a volunteer collecting signatures from 5% of voters, I have firsthand knowledge of the difficulties of the process. But firstly, and I wish to assure you it’s not due to a lack of interest from people when approached.

The process requires the gathering of commonly thousands of physical signatures

accompanied by a handwritten name and address that must precisely match the information on the electoral roll. If they do not match or are illegible, they do not qualify. This does not allow for people who have moved but not registered their change of address with the electoral

authorities. Nor for those with poor handwriting. In one specific electorate, 40% of the collected signatures were rejected by the authorities during the verification process.

Generally, signature collection is done in high-foot-traffic areas. However, this task is hamstrung by lack of public spaces available to do so, which has become more of a problem over recent years with the move away from main street shopping. Supermarkets and shopping malls

typically do not allow political activities on their premises. And many Councils do not make public spaces available for signature collection as they want to remain “politically neutral".

And then there is the understandable reluctance of some people to provide personal details due to concerns about privacy and potential misuse of personal information.

Additionally, the manual collection of signatures can be confronting. During one incident, fellow collectors were abused and intimidated by a couple of irate members of the public, who

followed them into a service station, grabbed the pages of signatures and proceeded to tear them up. The police were called, who calmed the situation and provided a safe escort back to their vehicles.

There is no doubt in my mind that these abusive and intimidatory tactics were an attempt to silence people – denying them their legitimate right to have a say.

In short, the signature collection process can be costly, time-consuming, and at times unsafe.

However, it doesn't have to be this way. The electoral system belongs to the people, not just the council. Ultimately, it must be up to the people to decide on their local electoral arrangements. It should be standard practice for councils to seek approval from voters before implementing constitutional changes, which includes the matter of Māori wards. Rather than requiring the public to organize a petition in response to a council decision on race-based representation, we propose that legislation mandate councils to first seek the approval of voters by hold a binding referendum.

We suggest this could be held at the next scheduled local body election. This is a simple, cost- effective process that is fair to all citizens. The referendum result should then be binding for two electoral terms or six years.

We are also greatly concerned that the legislation is geared towards the establishment of Māori wards but fails to provide an appropriate mechanism to disestablish them. As it currently stands, only councils can initiate the procedure to disestablish Māori wards. We recommend the legislation include a requirement by the council to poll the citizens every six years to confirm or otherwise the continuation of an established Māori ward.

The second part of our submission concerns the practise of postal voting. While the bill

includes provision for an extended voting period to allow for the decrease in NZ Post’s service, this is only one part of the problem with our postal voting system.

We submit that the way postal voting is conducted in New Zealand undermines the integrity of the electoral system.

Most Councils opt for postal voting over booth voting. The problem with postal voting is that our current electoral laws and practises are not robust enough to ensure that all votes are cast

legitimately. We have insufficient meaningful checks and balances, a specific requirement under section 4 of the Electoral Act 2001.

Our written submission lists what we see as some of the flaws in the postal voting system. I won’t reiterate the whole list, which I trust you have read, but I will elaborate on what we see as the most significant issues that arose during our observation of the 2022 local body election process.

These issues include the following:

People not receiving their voting packs in time for the election. Former Green MP and Whakatāne District Councillor Nandor Tanczos called for a Parliamentary inquiry into the 2022 local body election, deeming it a "shambles" due to widespread reports of people not receiving their voting packs in time. Outgoing Whakatane Mayor Judy Turner also noted the issue, with some voters not receiving their papers even two weeks after others had. Multiple cases were reported, including one where a woman received two sets of papers at different addresses.

Our opportunity to vote shouldn’t be dependent on random chance, like whether the ballot papers turn up or not.

According to the Auckland Council’s evaluation of the 2022 local elections, 1.1 million voting papers were distributed. However, only 405,000 votes were received. While there is no way to verify why such a large discrepancy, there is the possibility that the uncollected voting packs left all over the city, next to letterboxes and littering the pavement, could well have contributed.

We would also like to point out voting papers delivered to the wrong addresses can leave the system vulnerable to voter fraud.

Other opportunities to abuse the voting system include:

  • the practise known as “vote harvesting”, whereby people collect unclaimed voting envelopes from letter boxes, fill them in and deliver to ballot boxes.
  • people voting multiple times using the voting envelopes of family and friends.

I expect you will have seen in our written submission the screenshots from social media of people boasting of their flaunting of electoral law.

These issues arise from the inability to identify who completed the voting form delivered to the ballot box. This lack of verification means our system does not measure up to the standards that section 4 of the Electoral Act requires and makes the system vulnerable to fraud.

In addition, postal voting is challenging for many, especially in rural areas where postal services are even more unreliable. Many young voters may have never posted a letter in their lives, and even people who grew up using postal services, such as myself, struggle to identify where a post box is these days. And according to the Mayor of Nelson and former MP, Nick Smith, 20% of households do not even have a letterbox.

Snail mail is no longer the reliable service it once was.

We would like to offer some suggested improvements to increase the voting system's integrity, such as:

The Electoral Commission takes over from private companies running elections for councils. This could be part-funded by central government to ensure it remains

affordable for smaller councils.

  • Introducing a requirement for all voters to identify themselves and where they live when joining the electoral roll. Establishing identity and residence is a standard requirement in New Zealand, not for voting, but for getting a library card. We suggest this requirement should be replicated for voting in local body elections.
  • The use of an up-to-date electoral roll that requires voters to actively confirm their correct details before each election.
  • Using either polling booths with voter identification checks or secure postal voting with forms automatically checked against the voters enrolment application signature. Alternatively, forms could require the signature of another registered voter acting as a witness, similar to practices in Australia and Canada.

 

While voting should be accessible and straightforward, it should not come at the expense of public trust in the integrity of our electoral system.

In summary I am asking you to give attention to the question of postal voting in general, whether it is appropriate as a voting method and what alternatives might be preferable.

My final comments relate to the Māori electoral option and the representation review process that councils must undertake at least every six years to ensure "fair representation." Fair representation means a population-to-member ratio within +/-10% to guarantee equal voting power. However, legislative changes introduced last year have left the Māori electoral option open even post-review, potentially disrupting ward proportionality. In some areas, the principle of fair representation is already being abused, as exemplified in Nelson City where the general ward councillors represent more than 6,000 voters each, whereas the Māori ward councillor represents just 3,500 voters.

To uphold fair representation, it is essential to address this issue promptly. We suggest limiting roll type switches to once every three years to assist the maintenance of the integrity of representation reviews.

In summary, we are proposing:

  • an amendment to the bill that would require any councils seeking racially based representation to first hold a binding referendum;
  • that the ability to switch between the General and the Māori roll be restricted to time frames that would maintain the integrity of representation reviews; and
  • that the government revisit the option of postal voting as it is undermining the integrity of our local government electoral system.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Go back to the June 2024 newsletter


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