Coronavirus: Could COVID-19 see the election postponed?

If the COVID-19 lockdown goes on beyond the initial four weeks, one political commentator is predicting the election might be postponed to next year.

To stop the disease spreading unchecked through the community, most businesses have been shut down and limits on travel put in place. 

In January, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the next election would be held on September 19, just under three years since the one which saw Labour and NZ First - with help from the Greens - wrest control of Parliament from National. 

Though that's more than five months away, it's unclear at this stage how long restrictions will be in place thanks to COVID-19, which has killed tens of thousands of people worldwide. New Zealand has so far managed to avoid the kind of exponential growth in cases seen overseas, having gone into lockdown much earlier than most other countries when you look at how many confirmed cases of the disease we had at the time. 

We're currently at pandemic alert level 4 - the highest in the current system - but mass gatherings of people are banned even at level 1, and unnecessary travel at level 2, which could potentially make voting difficult.

"If we can come out of this situation in the next month or so, I think the election [on September 19] is a possibility," left-leaning political commentator Chris Trotter told The AM Show on Monday.

"If we're still in some form of lockdown - ie. level 3 in a month or six weeks' time - I think at the very least we have to postpone the election to the last possible moment, which I think is November 28. Or sensibly, next year." 

Electoral law expert Graeme Edgeler wrote in a blog post the election could be held as late as December 12 under the current rules. 

Legal scholar Andrew Geddis of the University of Otago, writing for The Spinoff recently, said it was up to the Prime Minister if she wanted to move the date of the election within the legally allowed timeframe. While the Governor-General has the legal power, they follow the Prime Minister's advice. 

But postponing it to 2021 would be more difficult.

"Barring legislative change by Parliament, the Prime Minister has to name an election date sometime in this year. And making any changes to that fact will not be easy," he wrote.

"The three-year term of parliament is one of New Zealand's few 'entrenched provisions', meaning that a 75 percent majority of all MPs is needed to extend it. So, in effect, both Labour and National have to agree to alter the legislative requirement that parliament dissolve by October 12."

Jacinda Ardern on The AM Show on Monday.
Jacinda Ardern on The AM Show on Monday. Photo credit: The AM Show

He said Parliament could technically change the law using its majority, allowing it to postpone the election without the 75 percent majority, but this would be a "completely outrageous move".

Another possibility would be letting the election go ahead but requiring everyone to use electronic ballots.

Ardern said last month there were no plans to postpone the election at that time. She hasn't commented on it since the country into lockdown.