How the Govt can recapture democratic lustre

Peter McKenzie puts forward some practical ways to get around the anti-democratic impacts of the waka-jumping legislation  

Featured prominently on the Labour Party’s website is the ‘History of the Labour Party’. Its first sentence declares that “The New Zealand Labour Party’s roots lie in activism for workers’ rights and democratic reform…”. Similarly, the opening lines of the Green’s ‘Doing Politics Differently’ policy notes with pride that “The Green Party has always stood for modernising our Parliament so that it is more democratic…”.

The Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Act is a rort of the democracy those parties are so proud of. It empowers political parties to expel MPs from Parliament; effectively eliminating their ability to take an independent stand for their constituents or challenge what they perceive to be unjustified misuses of power.

Nevertheless it was passed into law last week. Swift repeal is unlikely given New Zealand First’s fervent support for the law. Similarly, major positive democratic reform seems unlikely given the intensive reform agenda that the coalition Government has charted in other areas. 

Given that, it is useful to consider what simple democratic reforms Labour and the Greens could pursue to regain some of their previous lustre, or which reforms National could champion to build a substantive reputation in this area.

The first thing the coalition Government should do is improve voter enrolment processes. Voting is a two-step process. First one must enrol to vote by providing your personal details to the Electoral Commission. Second one must actually submit a vote during the election period.

That is harder than it sounds. Many people simply don’t enrol to vote or don’t enrol correctly. In last year’s election there was an estimated 3,569,830 eligible voters. Only 3,298,009 enrolled to vote - meaning there was a gap of 271,821 otherwise eligible voters. If a voter is not enrolled to vote by Election Day, their vote will not be counted (indeed approximately 19,000 votes were not counted in 2017 for that very reason).

There are all sorts of other electoral and civic reforms which the coalition government ought to undertake if it really wants to reclaim the democratic high ground.

The number of enrolled voters has actually been getting progressively worse over past elections. Enrolment numbers have dropped almost 3 percent since 2008. That’s a notable drop and demonstrates a worryingly steady downwards trend.

Essentially, fewer people are enrolling to vote, making voting harder and leading to more disallowed and uncounted votes.

There are two easy solutions. The first is automatic voter registration (AVR). Currently, voters have to opt in to the system by manually enrolling to vote. AVR would ensure that anytime a person interacts with a government agency (for example, to apply for a driving licence or a welfare payment), the information provided to that agency would be used to automatically enrol the person to vote. The person would then be given repeated opportunities by email and snail mail to opt out of the system by taking themselves off of the voter roll.

It is beautifully simple. The system uses information which the government already possesses to reduce the amount of work a voter must do and dramatically increase the number of people who can engage with our democratic process. The Electoral Commission actually recommended that the government introduce AVR in its post-election report. New Zealand is out-of-step with other leading democracies on this. Of the 25 countries which have the best voter turnout, 17 have automatic voter registration.

It really is simple; more people enrolled makes voting easier, increasing voter turnout.

The second solution is to allow enrolment on Election Day. The ban on doing so meant that approximately 19,000 unenrolled people who attempted to vote on Election Day in 2017 were simply ignored. The rule originates from a bygone era where there was just one day to cast your vote. Needless to say, that is no longer the case. Almost half of all votes are now cast in advance. No such ban on simultaneous enrolment and voting applies to those advance voters. Preventing people from enrolling to vote on Election Day is an arbitrary rule which actively disenfranchises thousands of would-be voters.

Young voters are hugely passionate about political issues. They simply express it through different channels - whether it be through protests, or social media, or conversations with their friends.

Increasing voter enrolment is crucial to improving our democratic system. But just because more people might be able to vote doesn’t mean that they actually will. Looking at voter turnout as a percentage of total eligible voters, voter turnout of those between 18 to 24 in 2017 was just 50 percent. Voter turnout of those between 25 and 29 was just 54 percent. Just half of our youngest voters are actually turning up. That’s not a problem we can solve purely through streamlining our voter enrolment system.

Part of the reason so few young voters show up to the voting booth is to do with politicians, political parties and the policies they provide. Most Members of Parliament seem impossibly out of touch to younger voters. The best illustrator of that fact is that the average MP owns almost three properties. The vast majority of younger voters find it hard to imagine owning just one. Spending precious time engaging in a system dominated by people dissimilar to them is understandably unappealing to many young voters.

That demographic difference also feeds into a perception that political parties are only concerned about property-owners and the elderly, leading to a set of policies which are dissatisfyingly inconsistent with the personal policy preferences of many young voters.

For those reasons and others, reforming our electoral system is not going to eliminate poor voter turnout among youth alone. But it can significantly help to achieve that goal. That’s because the problem is not one of young voter apathy, but what amounts to young voter disenfranchisement.

Young voters are hugely passionate about political issues. They simply express it through different channels - whether it be through protests, or social media, or conversations with their friends. They aren’t engaged in the staid democratic institutions which dominate our conventional political discourse.

If the coalition Government wants to regain some of its previous democratic lustre it should get started right away.

That’s because even if young voters did want to engage in a seemingly hostile democratic system, the basics of those democratic institutions are entirely foreign to them. Newly eligible voters between the age of 18 and 20 have never entered a voting booth before, and almost certainly haven’t been told what lies inside. Few know the difference between a party vote and an electorate vote, especially if they come from a less privileged background.

Our society drip-feeds such knowledge to us over time, which leaves young voters initially adrift in an unexplained system.

More advanced civic concepts, such as the interaction between the three branches of government, how to utilise tools such as the Official Information Act and Ombudsman, or how to pursue a political agenda through engaging effectively with our political representatives, are often foreign even to older voters.

A comprehensive civics education system lasting until Year 13, educating students about how our democratic institutions work, what the various parties stand for, and how to engage and make a difference, would mean that young voters would know from the get-go how to make the biggest impact in both conventional and unconventional modes of civic discourse.

The current 'Education Conversation' and broader set of reforms around our education system is the perfect opportunity for such a reform to be implemented. Civic education needn’t be a boring teacher lecturing students on what Parliament does, but can be an engaging mix of both theoretical and practical learning - utilising the activist spirit and passion which most young people already have, and using that to learn about how our system works.

There are all sorts of other electoral and civic reforms which the coalition government ought to undertake if it really wants to reclaim the democratic high ground: restoring the right to vote to prisoners with sentences of three years or less, lowering the voting age to 16, and seriously investigating constitutional reform of the sort proposed by Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Andrew Butler are just a few suggestions.

However, these suggested reforms of our electoral and educational systems are simple first steps which can be quickly adopted or integrated into existing programs of reform. If the coalition Government wants to regain some of its previous democratic lustre it should get started right away.

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