NZ Election 2020: Electoral Commission wanted November election, not October 17

New Government documents show the Electoral Commission's preferred alternative election date was November 21, not the October 17 date eventually settled on after the August outbreak.

Back in mid-August, after an outbreak of COVID-19 in Auckland forced the city into lockdown and for parties to suspend campaigning, the Prime Minister announced the election would be delayed from September 19 to October 17.

"This short delay gives the Commission more time to prepare including freeing up facilities for early voting during school holidays," Jacinda Ardern said on August 17.

"Moving the date by four weeks also gives all parties a fair shot to campaign and delivers New Zealanders certainty without unnecessarily long delays."

But it's now emerged that the Electoral Commission, the group responsible for organising our elections, initially preferred a November 21 date. 

A Ministry of Justice document to Andrew Little on August 12 - the day Auckland moved into lockdown - said the commission believed this date took into account "the usual events to avoid and the need to secure venues, print materials for the public and communicate the change".

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

A letter from the Electoral Commission addressed to Minister Little and also sent to Ardern and National's Judith Collins said that the October 17 date "would not allow sufficient time for the Commission to revise all existing arrangements for voting places, staff and election communications". 

The commission generally wants to avoid holding an election date during school holidays or on public holidays "as this can affect voter turnout". 

"Applying this advice to Saturdays after 19 September only leaves Saturday 17 October and Saturday 21 November as potential polling dates." 

On August 14 - two days after the move into lockdown - a Justice document discusses what would need to be done to hold the election on October 17 and how any risks could be mitigated.

It said the assistance of the All of Government COVID Response Group would be needed to deliver an election on that day, that the workforce was the risk "hardest to manage" and that the commission believed many voting sites for the September date would be available on October 17.

These documents were just some of hundreds of new briefings, minutes and other documents released on Friday by the Government. 

When announcing the new date on August 17, Ardern said she wouldn't change the date again.

"Continuously pushing out an election does not lessen the risk of disruption and this is why the Electoral Commission has planned for the possibility of holding an election where the country is at level 2, and with some parts at level 3". 

Ardern said the October 17 date gave all parties time to campaign and "the Electoral Commission enough time to ensure an election can go ahead". 

The election delay was supported by most political parties.

In a media release after Ardern announced the new date, Chief Electoral Officer Alicia Wright said the commission was "confident we can revise our existing arrangements for October 17". 

"These are challenging times for everyone, but we will have measures in place so that people can vote in person at a voting place this October."

The commission said in August that it had always planned to run an election as if New Zealand was at alert level 2 "with up to 10 'clusters' of up to 5000 cases in total at alert level 3 and 4".

"Health measures that will be in place include contact tracing, hand sanitiser and physical distancing in voting places, and providing protective gear for staff if needed.  Planning is also underway to have more voting places and longer voting times to reduce queues."

New Zealand is currently at alert level 1. Auckland transitioned to the level on Wednesday night, just over a week out from the election.

One of the Ministry of Justice documents notes that having an election at alert level 3 or 4 would have "implications for the voter experience". 

"Face to face engagement with voters, including for enrolment purposes, would be significantly curtailed. There is also a risk that some people are less willing to go to a voting place or even use a post box, and this may decrease voter turnout."

The commission was liaising with the Ministry of Health and able to tailor communications to address voter concern. Voters would also be encouraged to vote early, it said. 

Advance voting began on October 3 and by the end of October 7, nearly 480,000 people had voted. That's far higher than at the same time in previous election cycles.