26 May 2024

Parliament's Election Inquiry told blame lies in outdated laws

From The House , 7:30 am on 26 May 2024
Chief Electoral Officer Karl Le Quesne at Parliament's Justice Committee.

  Chief Electoral Officer Karl Le Quesne at Parliament's Justice Committee. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

In each new Parliament, the Justice Committee has a recurring job. It holds an extensive inquiry into the election just gone, looking for ways to improve and update New Zealand’s electoral law.

That inquiry has now begun. 

The Warm-Up

The Justice Committee warmed up for its inquiry with a briefing from the Office of the Controller and Auditor General (OAG), which had recently completed an inquiry into vote counting errors. The OAG had some pretty interesting things to say up front.

“Many aspects of the election process are set by legislation, and the commission, we saw, has limited flexibility and options about how it goes about doing the election because of those settings. For example, there's a very prescriptive way about how votes are counted, and that’s in the legislation.”

David Lemmon who heads the inquiries team at the OAG, noted that it was not their role to comment on the policy of those settings or how they might be changed, “but that might be something the committee could consider".

This felt like a very polite way of telling MPs that if they wanted to look for blame in election processes they should not look to the commission, but to the law.

In fact, the overarching message from the inquiry seemed to be that the commission is pretty boxed into archaic practices with over-prescriptive legislation.

For example, take this comment from the OAG’s Helen Colebrook – another great example of polite language that speaks volumes.

“It is very prescriptive around how the votes must be counted, including a manual vote-counting process that’s largely similar to the 1956 Act that preceded it. There may be some opportunities there to look at whether or not that could be updated to bring it into the century that we’re living in”. 

For a public servant that is quite an intense burn.

It was not the only criticism either. The Office of the Auditor General also had some thoughts about the funding for the Electoral Commission. 

It seems the commission did not know what its election budget was until too late, and it did not get as much as it thought it needed. That led to “difficult trade-offs about what it could do with the resources that it had".

In another ‘helpful suggestion’, the OAG observed an international trend towards independent funding for bodies like the Electoral Commission.

It does seem unwise to have governments directly controlling the funding of the organisation that manages the process that can end that government’s role. 

The Electoral Commission

After the OAG briefing, the inquiry started in earnest with the appearance of the Chief Electoral Officer Karl Le Quesne, who is the chief executive of the Electoral Commission. 

The commission has also just released its own report on the election with an impressive number of suggestions for changes to electoral law to make it fairer, more enforceable, more suited to a digital world, and easier to run elections.

The commission produces these reports after every election, making numerous suggestions (including some of the same ones ignored last time).

MP’s questioning of the commission was interesting. A key focus was identifying causes for the slower-than-usual vote count. While MPs worried about the slower count, the commission noted how much faster our vote count is than in other countries, and that the count fell well within the expected timeframe.

Questions from the governing side of the committee found particular fault with election-day enrolments and foreshadowed their disappearance. The commission pointed out that while on-the-day enrolments had some effect, the bigger cause of special votes was people who had not updated their details and who therefore were voting outside their electorates. 

To solve this issue the Electoral Commission suggested a change that would not necessitate preventing thousands from voting. They want the law to allow the commission to automatically enrol and update voters’ details prior to elections, thus speeding everything up. 

“We’ve got a really good example over the Tasman, in Australia, where for twelve years they’ve been running a direct enrolment scheme; where they basically use information people have already provided to government, to directly enrol people, or directly update their [details]. And then they’re able to use email, SMS messages (and post if they need to), to contact those people to verify their details.”

That sounds like an obvious solution, but it will not be possible until the law is changed to allow it.

The current legally-stipulated mechanism for finding people that have moved address or electorate is sending postal mail to where they lived three years ago. That is both illogical and expensive, when easier and better solutions already exist.

The election inquiry will continue for some time.