NZ Election 2020: Should the election day campaigning blackout be binned?

The days of having at least one day to vote in peace could be numbered. 

Labour finance spokesperson and present Finance Minister Grant Robertson says with advance voting becoming increasingly popular, the "perception of an inconsistency" is growing around the ban on campaigning on the nominal election day itself - this year, October 17. 

"Those rules around what happens on election day haven't changed in line with the rules we now have on voting," he told Magic Talk on Thursday.

The Electoral Act bans campaigning on election day - meaning billboards have to come down and adverts have to be pulled from radio, TV and social media. Candidates even need to be careful not to drive branded vehicles in public or wear party gear when they leave the house.

"Any statement advising or intended or likely to influence any elector as to the candidate or party for whom the elector should or should not vote," is outlawed, as are statements "advising or intended or likely to influence any elector to abstain from voting" or "any party name, emblem, slogan, or logo... any ribbons, streamers, rosettes, or items of a similar nature in party colours".

News outlets are prohibited from running "stories... likely to influence voters" or conducting opinion polls on election day, like they do in the US where they're called 'exit polls'.

But as you've likely heard, advance voting is already underway - and more popular than ever. As of Wednesday, 478,860 voters had already had their say on not just the election, but the two referenda. At this point in 2017, about 154,000 had, and in 2014, 118,000. 

In 2017 1.2 million Kiwis ended up voting ahead of election day, up from 2014's 717,000.  The Electoral Commission is predicting more than half of votes will be cast ahead election day, possibly as much as 60 percent. 

Since hitting an all-time low in 2011 of 74.2 percent, voting turnout has increased as advance voting has become more popular, rising to 77.9 percent in 2014 and 79 percent in 2017.

"It does offer people opportunity to fit voting around their days and lives," said Robertson. "In the old days not many people worked on Saturdays, and a lot of people do work on Saturdays now. I just think it suits and fits the way we live our lives... It's increasingly popular. If it wasn't needed or wasn't wanted, it wouldn't be happening." 

But if it's important not to influence voters on election day, why is it allowed for the two weeks beforehand when most voters are likely to go to the polls? Robertson told Magic Talk host Peter Williams it's a "fair point".

"Those rules around what happens on election day haven't changed in line with the rules we now have on voting... As our election process evolves, there probably will need to be a time when we look at what actually happens on the day."

He said some people like to vote on election day, deliberately not voting in advance, because they like doing it without being surrounded by election advertising - voting "in a way they've done it in the past".

Grant Robertson.
Grant Robertson. Photo credit: Newshub.

Australia has a mixed system, where TV and radio ads are banned ahead of the election, but internet and print are fair game - as is campaigning in person. 

"In Australia when you go up to the polling booth everyone's putting things in your hands and all that carry-on," said Robertson. "I'm not sure how much people would want that."

Asked if Labour was encouraging early voting to lock in support before releasing "unpopular" policies, Robertson said there wasn't much left to announce - and he doesn't expect any last-minute game changers from the Opposition either.

"We've put out the major policy - there are still a few that are coming, but there's no massive, significant new initiatives that are going to be put out over the next little while. There's one or two policy areas where we'll be recapping what we're doing and suggesting pathways forward, but all the political parties have taken the opportunity to put their major policies out there."