9 Oct 2020

Electoral Commission wanted November election date

5:19 pm on 9 October 2020

The government has today released the latest tranche of documents relating to the Covid-19 response and among the information is the Electoral Commission's preference for a 21 November election date.

Signs around Christchurch

The Electoral Commission was worried that Covid-19 cases might lead to a lower voter turnout, new documents show. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Just five days before Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced she would be changing the election date to 17 October, documents were sent out advising that the Electoral Commission had a preferred alternative date of Saturday 21 November.

"Proceeding earlier than this does not give it sufficient time to re-standup advance and election day voting services," the document said.

Jacinda Ardern casting her vote in the 2020 general election at Mt Eden War Memorial Hall in Auckland.

Just five days before Jacinda Ardern announced the election date, the Electoral Commission advised of its preference. Photo: RNZ / Jo Moir

The commission generally advises to avoid dates within the school holidays and provincial or statutory holidays, which left only 17 October and 21 November as potential dates, which would not require a law change.

If the election were to occur on 21 November, then the official result was estimated to come back on 11 December.

The commission had set-up contingency plans for the election to be delivered at Covid-19 alert level 2, with up to 10 'clusters' of up to 5000 cases in total at alert level 3 and 4.

"Should the election need to proceed at alert level 3 or 4, this could be done, but there will be significant operational implications for the Commission.

"The impact will depend on the size and number of regions at higher alert levels, and the numbers in isolation or quarantine. "

It also noted that at a higher alert level physical distancing would likely apply, meaning that voters would also experience longer wait times and that face-to-face engagement with voters, including for enrolment purposes, would also be significantly curtailed.

There was also concern that some people may be less willing to go to a voting place or even use a post box - decreasing voter turnout.

Government sought legal advice on day of decision

On the same day the prime minister announced a change in election date, urgent legal advice was still being sought on how changing polling day would impact the regulated period.

The regulated period puts limits on how much candidates, parties and third parties can spend on election and referendum advertising.

A document dated 17 August stated the legality of the situation wasn't clear and urgent advice from Crown Law was being sought.

In particular, advice was being sought on party hoardings and the start date and length of the regulated period.

Judith Collins responds

National's leader Judith Collins says she was not aware of that advice being given to Ardern.

"She [Ardern] takes the advice that she likes to get, that's part of her role is to look at the advice and decide what she wants. But if the Electoral Commission said November it's certainly not something I recall her sharing with me," she said.

Ardern defended her decision to hold the election in October.

"After some written advice was received I sat down and met with the Electoral Commission, they then subsequently came back and revised some of their advice suggesting that the date that we have now is feasible," she said.

Just three days before Ardern announced her decision, another document stated that a 17 October election could be possible,

It said that the commission could leverage and draw on much of the work that already undertaken to deliver the election, but not having the workforce was a concern.

"There is also a risk already being realised in areas under Alert Level 3 that some of the 25,000 plus electoral workers that have been/are currently being recruited will now be unable or unwilling to work in a face-to-face environment," it said.

Ardern said she was happy with the election's delivery so far.

"I think ultimately the proof is in the pudding, we can see the Electoral Commission very successfully already running the election through advance voting and so that demonstrates that the advice they gave was correct," she said.

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