Māori electoral changes: National criticised over concerns Government's proposal could allow voters to 'game the system'

National believes the Government's proposed legislation allowing Māori to switch electoral rolls at any time - including on polling day - could allow voters to "game the system".

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi rejects that, while Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson said the Opposition is just looking for votes and is "on the edges of playing the Māori card". 

The trouble for the Government is that it needs National's support for the Māori Electoral Option Bill to pass. It amends a special piece of legislation that requires a 75 percent majority or a referendum to be changed.

Meanwhile, a similar proposal from Te Pāti Māori has just been picked from Parliament's ballot, with the party describing it as a "bottom line moving into the next election". Both Labour and National would need the party's support to govern on Newshub's latest political poll results.

The Government's legislation would allow Māori to switch between the two electoral rolls - the Māori and general rolls - at any time, up to and on polling day.  The Bill is expected to be introduced to the House in the coming weeks and could come into force before the 2023 election if it passes.

Currently, a Māori Electoral Option period is held for four months every five to six years when Māori voters can choose to move between the rolls. It's usually held after the five-yearly census. The number of Māori and general electorates is then set using the results from the Option and the census.

The last Option was in 2018 and under the current rules Māori won't be able to change rolls until after the 2023 election.

"By removing the restrictions that currently lock Māori voters in their roll choice for two general elections, this change represents a significant improvement to a status quo that prevents Māori voters from fully exercising their electoral rights," said Faafoi.

Faafoi said the Ministry of Justice conducted engagement with academics and interested groups in mid-2021 on the issue, while reports by Parliament's Justice Select Committee and the Electoral Commission have also suggested changes.

"The feedback from the engagement overwhelmingly supported a shift to a continuous model to remove the restrictions on Māori voters' electoral rights," he said. "The current restrictions on timing and frequency of the Option are unjustified, unfair, and often difficult to understand."

"During the consultation period we reached out to all political parties during the policy and engagement process for their views on the timing and frequency of the Māori Electoral Option.

"We thank them for their engagement so far, and look forward to engaging with them further throughout the parliamentary process."

However, the Government won't allow voters to switch rolls in the lead-up to by-elections.

Kris Faafoi.
Kris Faafoi. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Paul Goldsmith, National's justice spokesperson, said that's an acknowledgement that, if an exception wasn't included in the Bill, there is a risk voters could "game the system" by changing rolls just before a by-election in order to be able to vote. 

He believes there's also a risk of "gaming the system" ahead of a general election, something National wants the Government to address before it gives its support to the Bill. 

"If in a general election, you're in a marginal seat and it might make sense for somebody on the Māori roll to say, 'Well I can vote in one seat where the outcome is guaranteed to be one way, or I could vote in this general election seat where it is marginal and my vote might have more influence', then they have the ability to move but other New Zealanders don't."

Asked if he had any evidence to back up his concern that Māori may jump between rolls to "game the system", he said the Government acknowledged it was a risk by including the by-election carveout. 

He's suggested to the Government that Māori voters can't change rolls three or four months out from a general or local election. 

"It's important that we maintain confidence in our electoral system. This has been the process whereby we ensure that there is proportionality between Māori wards and the general wards, by linking that with the census. If you have significant movement between those two rolls, between the census, that could have an impact on proportionality. 

"But the real issue is ensuring that that the system isn't gamed during an election period and we think it's a reasonable concern and we would expect the minister to acknowledge that."

He said the Electoral Commission is "entitled to their view" and "we're entitled to ours". 

Faafoi told reporters on Thursday that he believed the system the Government's legislation would create "can't be gamed". He has asked National to reconsider its position as he says the party purports to support "equality in terms of suffrage and voters' rights". 

"It will go through the Select Committee process and we'll see how that goes. But we believe we've got the balance right in terms of making sure there's equity across that particular issue of voter registration."

Paul Goldsmith.
Paul Goldsmith. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Labour's Jackson said Goldsmith is "always worried in terms of Māori".

"It's one of their strategies to always say you can't trust Māori in terms of what they're going to do. So it's disappointing hearing that sort of carry on," the minister said.

"We're trying to get more Māori involved in the system and this might be one way of doing it."

He said National was "on the edges of playing the Māori card".

"They are wondering if there are votes in going against some of the Māori initiatives and Māori issues. They are sorta half supporting us, so we will see where they go."

ACT leader David Seymour said his party was favourable to a more flexible Māori Electoral Option, "but we are going to have to work very carefully through the potential it is gameable".

"I know a lot of people who want to get off and some people who want to get on. They should be able to do it flexibly."

He made a similar point to Goldsmith about the Government acknowledging that risk ahead of by-elections and also raised concerns about the flow-on effects on the size of electorates.

"There's lots of kinks in it, but on balance we are going to be looking to support it because we believe in flexibility. It just can't come at the expense of electoral integrity."

Greens justice spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman, whose Strengthening Democracy Bill also proposes a similar change, tweeted claiming that the Opposition is playing "pure race politics".

Goldsmith said that was "nonsense". 

"What we're doing is trying to ensure that New Zealanders have confidence in the system and what we're suggesting is perfectly reasonable and how we've had it for a long time."

Green Party co-leader James Shaw said it was "really unfortunate" National was currently against the Bill.

"I know they have raised some objections. I hope those objections can be overcome. But I think they need to decide for themselves whether those are good-faith objections or whether they are just playing politics."

Goldsmith's suggestion that the Bill would allow Māori voters to "game the system" was "just politics", Shaw said. He suspects National is opposing the legislation as they think it would disadvantage them at an election. 

"I think if you look at the genuine, observable behaviour of people. Any kind of behaviour like that is pretty marginal and you wouldn't say it is confined to Māori."

Rawiri Waititi.
Rawiri Waititi. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Coincidentally, a third piece of legislation making such an amendment was pulled from the Member's Bill biscuit tin moments before a press release from Faafoi was released announcing the Government's changes. 

It's in the name of Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi, who said he was "ecstatic" the legislation had been pulled out of the ballot. Amid a number of other changes, his Bill would also allow the electoral boundaries to be redrawn on a set date two years after each general election. 

"The timing is divine intervention. In time for Matariki, this spells the dawn of a new era for everything Māori. We are here for it and we are ready for it because we have been waiting long enough."

He said the legislation is a "bottom line" for his party moving into the next election. On a number of polls - including the most recent Newshub Reid Research poll - both the centre-right and centre-left blocs would need Te Pāti Māori to govern.