The 'pretty significant' law change meaning Māori can now switch voting rolls at most times

There will also be an advertising campaign to reach those who are not enrolled.
There will also be an advertising campaign to reach those who are not enrolled. Photo credit: Newshub.

By Pokere Paewai of RNZ

From Friday Māori are free to switch their enrolment choice at any time except in the three months before an election.

After a law change last year, it will be easier for Māori to decide whether to enrol on the general roll or the Māori roll.

Electoral Commission chief Māori advisor Hone Matthews said Māori had an important choice before them.

"I think it's pretty significant, it's the first change since 1975. And it effectively enables our people to change the roll that they're on. Previously we've had to wait five to six years at a census time... to utilise that vote."

A publicity campaign was about to get underway, with information packs to be delivered to half a million voters from Saturday.

There will also be an advertising campaign to reach those who are not enrolled, and the Electoral Commission will be in schools to get first-timers enrolled.

Matthews said the commission would be working closely with iwi and local organisations.

"Our people have reached out through a number of iwi agencies, and we have community engagement officers on the ground working with iwi as well."

Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi hoped the information campaign would be large enough to reach isolated communities.

"There's not much publication on it, not a lot of our communities know about the Māori electoral option," Waititi said.

"There should have been a marriage between the census and the Māori roll option, because it all intertwines in terms of the percentage of the population also determines the percentage of the roll [and] how many seats you get."

The number of people on the Māori roll affects the number of Māori electorates.

Victoria University Māori studies lecturer Dr Annie Te One said many people may not understand this function of the Māori roll.

"So it's really important that this change also come hand in hand with educating people about what the roll actually means.

"I think there needs to be some more work done around letting people know that actually movement to the Māori roll, and increases in the Māori role has a flow on effect to the potential for more Māori electorates."

For years there has been a campaign to loosen the restrictions around registering on the Māori roll.

The Electoral Commission has long asked Parliament to change the wait time.

The law was changed late last year when the government reached a compromise with National, which resulted in the three month waiting period.

The change was ostensibly to prevent people from gaming the system, although the commission said it had no evidence of this occurring in prior elections.

Annie Te One said most of the political engagement with Māori was in the three month period where changes were not allowed.

"I think it's going to be a really interesting period to figure out what it does mean for Māori voting and also the way political parties are going to start looking at the Māori electorates and perhaps we might see a rise in political party engagement in the electorates."

The Māori electoral option has been around since 1867, when Parliament established four Māori seats.

What began as a policy to assimilate Māori into the mainstream political system has, after more than 150 years, become a distinctive feature of Aotearoa's electoral system.