Representation to the Justice Committee of Parliament Inquiry into the Local Elections 2022

Greetings to the committee.

I request that you accept this as a late contribution. I had intended to send it before the deadline of 14 February but my internet has been down due to Cyclone Gabrielle.

I wish to make an oral presentation.

INTRODUCTION

My name is Nandor Tanczos. I am a third term councillor on the Whakatāne District Council and an accredited RMA commissioner. I was a Member of Parliament from 1999 to 2008 and sat on the Justice and Electoral Committee. I was also active during the committee stage of the passage of the Local Government Act 2002, although I did not sit on the Local Government committee. I mention these simply to establish my familiarity with local goverment legislation and practice, including electoral matters

I previously wrote to the committee in anticipation of this inquiry. Some of what I write below will have already been covered by that letter, but I wish to ensure that my comments are formally considered during this process. I thank you for the opportunity to have my say.

THE 2022 LOCAL ELECTION – THE PROBLEMS

As you will be aware, this years election had a number of significant problems with the administration of the vote. While our council endeavoured to make voting as accessible as possible by providing drive-in voting and taking mobile units out to some of our more remote communities, these efforts were greatly undermined by broader problems at (it seems) a nation level. Specifically two issues loom largest.

The first was the large numbers of people who didn’t receive their voting papers in time, or at all. While this has been a problem in the past, my understanding is that it has been relatively minor until now. Last year the scale of it seems unusual – and entirely unacceptable.

I have been contacted by local electors who received voting papers in the past at the same address, or who updated their details on the electoral roll well before the cut-off date in August, but who did not receive their voting papers for this election. I heard from families where the parents received papers but their (voting age) children did not, or vice versa. I heard from people who updated their address in time but whose papers still went to their old address, or sometimes to both. I also heard from a number of people who received their papers in the last few days prior to election day, who either posted their papers (and almost certainly didn’t have them counted because they arrived too late) or thought it was too late to vote. This included, but was not restricted to, overseas voters.

Of course all these people could make a special vote (if they did not receive their papers) or take their papers to a ballot box (if they arrived late, and there was one available in their community). The reality is that many people found it hard to understand what they needed to do in such circumstances. As a candidate I found myself advising people often on how to vote when this should have been clear to them. In addition, some people did not even realise that they hadn’t received papers until voting was closed.

All of this is a disincentive to vote, in an election that already suffers low turn-out. Given the lack of understanding about local electoral processes generally among the general public, I have no doubt that this suppressed the vote, in particular among those demographics already least likely to participate. Simply put, the harder and more complicated we make it, the less likely people are to vote, especially people not used to voting.

The second issue relates to the broader question of voting method and system. This includes whether postal voting is a method fit for purpose in the 21st century, and whether First Past the Post voting, both for Mayor and for ward councillors, delivers genuine democracy.

Many young voters have probably 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. Snail mail is no longer the universal service it was. I am aware that councils have the ability to change the voting method under section 36 of the Local Electoral Act but in my observation, representation reviews by councils rarely touch on this question and many councillors would be unaware this power exists, or what the resource implications for the organisation would be. Some discussion of this by the Justice Committee, taking a broad national approach, would be helpful. I am aware that this latter question was briefly canvassed in your previous report but I am of the opinion that it could do with a more thorough consideration than you gave it at that time.

On the voting system, local elections are rife with examples of how candidates splitting the vote can lead to the election of people with strong negative ratings among the majority of voters. Especially smaller councils are often not well equipped to have a proper evidence based discussion on the pros and cons of moving to a Single Transferable Voting system and it would be helpful if the committee could provide some research basis and political commentary to assist.

OTHER MATTERS

The regular inquiry into local elections is an important function of this committee and used to its potential, I think it provides an opportunity to help address the some of the systemic disincentives to voting. My request above that you give a more detailed consideration of voting method and system is made in that vein. Perhaps even more importantly, I think it would be helpful to see your conclusions more widely disseminated. At the least, your report could be emailed to all elected councillors so that they are aware of your findings. My observation is that many elected councillors are not even aware that a review of local elections by your committee takes place on a regular basis, nor are they made aware of your conclusions. Given the importance of that work, wider appreciation of it (especially during representation reviews by councils) can only enhance local democracy.

Along similar lines, I think it would be helpful if elected councillors, or even all candidates in local elections, were emailed notification of your inquiry when it is initiated. Again most councillors would not be aware that the inquiry is taking place and that submissions are open, and many would have valuable insights into the process. In fact I was disappointed to not receive direct notification myself of this inquiry from the committee, given that I had already written to the clerk and chair to request that it be initiated promptly following the election.

Lastly, I support a voting age of 16 for local and central government elections. I think it will improve voting quality, because it will lead to near universal enrolment through schools and associated civics education.

CONCLUSION

In summary I am writing to ask you to give attention to three things:

  • The causes of, and solutions to, large numbers of people not receiving their voting papers in time to vote.
  • The question of postal voting in general, whether it is appropriate as a voting method and what alternatives might be preferable.
  • What the evidence tells us about the benefits and disadvantages of STV voting vis a vis FPP
  • The advantages of lowering the voting age to 16.
  • How your report can be more widely promoted, in particular among elected councillors and candidates, both in terms to eliciting submissions and also to disseminate your findings more widely.

I thank you for your time. Please contact me at this email if anything I have written needs clarification.

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