Election 2020: National MP Nick Smith questions Electoral Commission's 'political neutrality' in stand-off

National MP Nick Smith is questioning the Electoral Commission's "political neutrality" after it consulted with the Government on changes to the election process before advising the Opposition and without giving them a chance to provide feedback. 

Chief Electoral Officer Alicia Wright told the Epidemic Response Committee that in the wake of COVID-19, postal voting will be scaled up to serve up to a million people, the number of voting places will increase for physical distancing, and early voting will be expanded. 

"Voting will start two days earlier than planned on Saturday 5 September and we'll have more advanced voting places, especially on the weekend before the election on Saturday 12 and Sunday 13 September... It will look like a mini election weekend."

Wright said the Electoral Commission consulted with the Government on the approaches it planned to take (although she could not recall the date) and then later provided the information to Opposition parties - which Dr Smith flagged as an implication. 

He said providing the Government with knowledge on when the early voting will start is "important political intelligence" to secure advertising placements. He said the three governing parties should not have that advantage. 

"Don't you think it creates some difficulties about the political neutrality of the Electoral Commission when some of the parties in the election have got notice beforehand of the sorts of changes that you're going to advance?"

Wright said the Electoral Commission consulted with Justice Minister Andrew Little because there were "implications around resources to consider" and the commission "needed to ensure the minister was aware of that". 

Dr Smith said the "key difference" is that the commission informed the Government and gave them the chance to provide feedback, whereas Opposition political parties were told what the commission planned to do without the same opportunity. 

National MP Nick Smith.
National MP Nick Smith. Photo credit: Parliament TV

He said it "came as a bit of a surprise" to the Justice Committee that the commission "thinks it can make changes" to the Election Day procedures "without any consultation" with some political parties. 

Wright said the commission "looked at a range of mechanisms to ensure that we are providing a service for those people who are unable to go into voting places". 

She said postal voting is something that can be "scaled up to deliver to those people" and that it's the "approach that we have taken". 

Wright said the Electoral Commission was able to make the changes based on amendments to the Electoral Act passed in early March that meant in the case of an emergency, it could use alternative voting processes.  

But she said the changes would go ahead regardless of what alert level New Zealand is under at the time of the election, and Dr Smith questioned that, suggesting if we're under alert level 1 it's not an emergency situation.  

He acknowledged COVID-19 is fast-moving and that it "makes life difficult for you and all New Zealanders trying to plan for something down the track", but he said cases could be so low in September that the changes are not necessary. 

Chief Electoral Officer Alicia Wright.
Chief Electoral Officer Alicia Wright. Photo credit: Parliament TV

National MP Michael Woodhouse suggested that rather than using emergency powers the commission was exercising "the dramatic expansion of what was a rare exception to a postal vote option that could see a million or more people voting by post". 

Dr Smith questioned how the commission will decide who is eligible for postal voting, such as how it will verify that the person conducting the vote is indeed the person that would present themselves at a polling booth. 

Wright said the commission is "working through the criteria now". She said people will have to say why they want to vote remotely, but they will not have to present medical certificates or documentation. 

"You're ultimately saying that you will not decline a person that registers for postal voting, which is effectively saying all voters have a right to a postal vote if they chose to register," Dr Smith said. 

Wright said while the pool of potential candidates could be quite large, the commission anticipates that "most New Zealanders will continue to vote in voting places". 

What's going to change on Election Day?

The Election Day will proceed on Saturday, 19 September - the date Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced back in January

The Electoral Commission is working towards having up to 850 voting places open during the whole of the advanced voting period, and expects that number to double on the weekend before the election, and then reaching 2500 on Election Day. 

When you go into a voting place, you'll need to use hand sanitizer, and queues will be managed to maintain physical distancing, just as people do now when they go to the supermarket. 

Voters will be asked to bring their own pen but there will be some available. 

People at high-risk of COVID-19 - someone who is older or who has a medical condition - will be able to choose to vote via post. 

People who go into isolation during the voting period will be able to use another alternative way of voting, takeaway voting, where papers are delivered and picked up by election staff.