5 Oct 2021

Electoral law review to follow transparency, Māori Roll changes

11:16 am on 5 October 2021

The government is launching a sweeping review of the country's electoral laws including voting age, the three-year term, party funding and the "coat-tailing" rule.

Kris Faafoi

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

However, the review would not consider changes to Māori seats, local elections, changing from the MMP system, or fundamental constitutional changes like becoming a republic or having an upper house.

Minister of Justice Kris Faafoi announced some targeted rule changes - such as transparency of political donations, and changes to the Māori roll - would be brought in ahead of the 2023 election, while the review would look into broader changes ahead of the 2026 election.

The review would be led by an independent panel and the government would work with parties across Parliament for broad, non-partisan changes, Faafoi said.

"Much has changed since the 1950s but most of the electoral law hasn't and the basic structure of the Act is 60 years old, when voting was based on walking to your local polling station and filling out a piece of paper on voting day itself," he said.

"The aim is to ensure that as many people as possible participate in elections and that we continue to make sure voting is accessible to the next generation of voters all while being conducted efficiently and securely."

The review would look at:

  • Voting age
  • Overseas voting
  • Funding of political parties
  • Length of Parliamentary term
  • Electoral Commission recommendations on MMP

Recommendations from the Electoral Commission include changes to the party vote threshold, the one-seat electorate rule, the ratio of electorate and list seats, and the overhang rule.

Larger recommended changes could go to referendum

Faafoi said it was possible some of the larger changes covered by the review - like the Parliamentary term and voting age - could go to a referendum.

"Given the parliamentary term directly affects the ability of voters to select and elect the people that represent them, this is an important issue. We want to explore the public's views on whether New Zealand should have a longer Parliamentary term and there will be a wide range of opinions ... we want to hear them."

"Some feel that the lowering of voting age could increase voter participation, and youth participation specifically. Lowering the voting age would however be a major change to our electoral system - such a change requires a majority in a referendum or a 75 percent majority in Parliament."

However, decisions about when such a referendum could take place had not yet been made, he said.

"Some of these issues I think will probably need to go to a referendum, but these are things still to be worked out."

He said any changes to the way parties were funded should be guided by a public conversation.

Changes before next election depend on select committee findings

On the more immediate changes, political party donations have proven contentious in recent years, with people associated with Labour, National, NZ First and the Māori Party having been investigated by the Serious Fraud Office.

There have also been calls for changes to the Māori Roll for years, with those wanting to switch between it and the General Roll only able to do so every five or six years - in line with the census - despite elections taking place every three years.

Those on the Māori electoral roll vote for Māori electorate seats, rather than general electorate seats. At the moment, Māori voters are unable to switch rolls before the 2023 election.

Ahead of the 2017 election the Electoral Commission recommended allowing a change every three years, to line up with elections, but it was opposed by National Party members.

Faafoi said given the Covid-19 pandemic, the government could also consider a change to the rule for overseas voting - permanent residents and citizens can only vote if they have been to New Zealand in the past 12 months or three years, respectively - to be made before the 2023 election.

However, this and other changes would depend on the findings of the Justice Select Committee review of the 2020 election, he said.

Electoral Commission recommendations

Other changes proposed by the Electoral Commission in its 2012 review to deal with changes to the way seats in Parliament are allocated, and the rules around them.

As it stands there are usually 120 seats in Parliament, with 72 decided by electorate votes, and the remaining 48 being "list" seats, filled proportionally according to the party votes each party wins at the election. There are also sometimes "overhang" seats which can be added to ensure the proportion of seats remains correct.

A party also has to get 5 percent of votes or an electorate seat to be in Parliament - but if they win an electorate seat they get allocated seats based on their percentage of part votes regardless of the 5 percent threshold.

Electoral Commission reviews have previously called for the 5 percent threshold to be lowered to 4 percent, removing overhang seats, abolishing the electorate seat threshold for allocating seats - known as the coat-tailing rule - and changing the ratio to 60:40 of electorate to list seats.

It suggested the threshold could also be lowered to 3 percent without significant risk, on the basis of previous MMP results, but such a large reduction would be a step too far at this stage.

The review panel would report back with recommendations in late 2023, Faafoi said, and while the government was aiming to have changes completed by 2026 the Electoral Commission, political parties and the public would be given time to prepare.

"I have invited other Parliamentary parties to say who they think should be on the panel and what they think the review should cover."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs