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New Zealand Herald

January 16, 2004

Editorial: Time to take confusion out of voting
January 16, 2004

When too many cooks dabble in the same broth, confusion and inefficiency become part of the recipe. There is also the chance to pass the buck if the results of all that labour are below expectation. It is, therefore, unsurprising that Paul Harris, the retiring Electoral Commission chief executive, should want a single independent agency to be responsible for all electoral matters. Or that a royal commission and a taskforce have made exactly the same suggestion. What is extraordinary is that a muddled, multifarious system continues to survive.

Dr Harris notes, quite correctly, that the present jumble is perplexing to all and sundry. How can it be otherwise when the system is so fragmented. The commission's role is to register political parties and donations to them, and to monitor party election spending. It also handles electoral education and advises the Government and Parliament. Yet the actual running of elections is the job of the Chief Electoral Office, a branch of the Ministry of Justice. The New Zealand Post electoral enrolment centre, for its part, beavers away maintaining the roll.

Clearly, a single agency could take a more efficient, sector-wide perspective, initiating overall policy and scotching potential problems. No longer would there be different accountabilities and responsibilities, and the potential for friction arising from turf-guarding zeal. It is tempting to ask whether the slow vote-count shambles of the 1999 election would have been avoided had one agency been in control. Much of the blame for that debacle was attributed to the Department of Courts, which had dissuaded staff from acting as returning officers because it could distract them from their normal duties. That, in itself, spoke volumes of the shortcomings of a divided structure, and the potential for the downgrading of a fundamental element of democracy.

Given the 1999 shambles, and the subsequent 2001 electoral taskforce report, it is puzzling that the Government has not introduced a single agency. The more so because the arrival of electronic voting provides an added incentive to seek the utmost efficiency. Indeed, so mystifying is the Government's absence of action that it is reasonable to ask if it is content with the structure as it is because it provides a measure of control.

Any agency that fulfils a constitutional role should be separated from departments of state. That, of course, is not the case with the Chief Electoral Office. As Dr Harris suggests, a single agency would have to be independent. Logically, that means the Electoral Commission taking responsibility for all aspects of parliamentary elections.

One of Dr Harris' other pleas was for more money to be spent on electoral education, especially for youth, women and Maori and Pacific Islanders. This request is equally well-founded. Turnout at the 2002 election was 77 per cent, still relatively high but further evidence of a worrying decline in participation. Part of the blame can be attributed to parties reducing their direct contact with voters, whether by telephone or door-knocking. But surveys also show a steady decline in interest among 18 to 24-year-olds.

Equally, it remains questionable whether voters fully understand the function of the party vote. Many clearly still regard the constituency vote as more important. Previous public information campaigns have helped to ease the transition to MMP. But more may still be required to sheet home understanding of the mechanics of proportional representation, and to raise political awareness to a level that ensures Parliament continues to be truly representative.

Dr Harris has done a sterling job in shepherding New Zealand through its first three MMP elections. What he suggests in his valedictory remarks is relatively straightforward. The Government has no excuse for failing to follow his advice.


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