Electoral system changes proposed: Lower voting age, lower threshold to enter Parliament, four-year term

An independent panel reviewing New Zealand's electoral system has published a set of draft recommendations, including lowering the party vote threshold, having a public referendum on a four-year term, and bringing the voting age down to 16.

The report released on Tuesday is being labelled a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to modernise New Zealand's electoral system, and ensure it is fairer and more accessible. 

The panel, established by the Government last year, has spent the last 12 months considering issues such as the voting age, potential improvements to MMP, how our system upholds Te Tiriti o Waitangi, as well as political finance rules.

It received more than 1700 submissions from community groups, organisations and individuals, and hosted meetings with the public, registered political parties, and Māori communities.

The draft recommendations will now go out to the public for consultation until July 17, with the panel then taking on the feedback and producing a final report by the end of November. It will be up to the Government to choose how to move forward.

The key recommendations are:

  • Lower the party vote threshold from 5 percent to 3.5 percent, while abolishing the one electorate seat threshold 
  • Lower the voting age for general elections to 16 and allow all prisoners to vote
  • Hold a public referendum on extending New Zealand's parliamentary term to four years
  • Restrict political donations to registered voters and cap individuals' donations to $30,000 to each party and its candidates per electoral cycle
  • Re-write the Electoral Act to be more modern, including obligations to give effect to Te Tiriti
  • Entrench the Māori electorates and remove more restrictions around when Māori can change electoral rolls 

"There have been piecemeal changes to electoral law over many years, including some recently, but this review is an opportunity to step back and look at the bigger picture," said chair of the Electoral Review Panel Deborah Hart.

"While many parts of Aotearoa New Zealand's electoral system work well, we found it can be improved."

Matters outside of the scope of the review include online voting, alternatives to MMP, re-establishing an Upper House, and the role and function of the Head of State.

Improving MMP

The panel has devised what is being referred to as a bundle of recommendations to make changes to how candidates and parties enter Parliament. 

It believes the way seats are won in elections could be fairer and should more closely reflect the number of votes each party receives.

Currently, any political party that receives more than 5 percent of the party vote is entitled to seats in Parliament, regardless of whether it wins any electorate. 

For example, at the 2017 election, the Green Party received 6.3 percent of the vote, but didn't win any electorate seats. As it was over the 5 percent threshold, it got eight list seats.

The other way parties can make it into Parliament is by a candidate winning an electorate seat. At the 2020 election, Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi won Waiariki. With his party receiving 1.2 percent of the vote, it was also entitled to one additional list seat.

Under the changes proposed by the panel, the party vote threshold would be reduced to 3.5 percent, but the one electorate seat threshold would be removed. 

It means it would be easier for smaller parties to enter Parliament, which the panel believes would make it more representative. 

While acknowledging that too many smaller parties would make it difficult to form a Government, the panel believed 3.5 percent was a fair threshold - equating to about 100,000 votes at the 2020 election. A party that received 3.5 percent of the vote would get a minimum of four MPs.

"It was what we thought was about right when you're trying to secure effective Government and effective Parliament, and ensure that votes count and that you've got a representative Parliament," Hart told Newshub. "But we want to hear from New Zealanders, have we got it right, is it too high, too low?"

The panel has also recommended the total number of seats in Parliament rise in line with New Zealand's population to ensure an effective balance between electorate and list seats.

It found that as the number of electorate seats increase with changes of population, the number of list seats decrease.

"If this change continues, we may reach a point where there are not enough list seats to give all parties their share of seats and this could affect the diversity of Parliament."

Allowing more people to vote

The right to vote was a key principle recognised by the panel throughout the review process. It formed the view that some rules limiting who can vote are "not justified" and believes there should be a "very high bar" for limiting what is a fundamental democratic right. 

One of those spotlighted by the panel is the voting age. 

Currently, people aged 18 and older is eligible to vote, though the Supreme Court last year declared that age threshold to be inconsistent with the right to be free of discrimination on the basis of age.

That decision initially led to former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announcing the Government would draft legislation to bring the general election voting age down to 16.

However, as any change to the voting age would require a 75 percent majority in Parliament and National and ACT are opposed it, it always looked doomed to fail.

Within two months of ascending to the prime ministership earlier this year, Chris Hipkins axed Ardern's plan and put the focus on lowering the age for local elections

A separate Select Committee process sparked by the Supreme Court decision last month recommended the Government investigate bringing the voting age down to 16.

The panel has also recommended this, arguing that evidence shows 16-year-olds are just as capable as 18-year-olds.

"The right to vote is a fundamental right enshrined in the Bill of Rights," Hart said. "It can only be limited to the extent that's justifiable of a free and democratic society."

She said 16-year-olds can already take on a number of responsibilities. 

"We considered what 16-year-olds can do right now. They can hold a driver's licence, they can hold a gun licence, they can leave school, they can hold down a full-time job. They can pay taxes."

The panel also wants all prisoners to be allowed to vote. Currently, any prisoner serving a sentence of three years or more cannot vote.

"Voting is a fundamental right and we don't think it is appropriate and justifiable that we use a civil right like voting in our criminal justice system," Hart said.

She also referenced a Waitangi Tribunal report that found the previous situation of no prisoners being allowed to vote disproportionately affected Māori.

In 2020, the Labour Government allowed any prisoner sentenced to less than three years in prison to be able to vote.

Other recommendations from the panel in this area include allowing citizens to spend longer overseas before they lose their right to vote in acknowledgement that it is easier these days for people in other countries to stay connected to New Zealand.

Permanent residents should have to spend longer in New Zealand before they can vote, the panel said, to show their commitment to the country.

It did consider compulsory voting, but found this would be a significant change to the country's culture and wasn't warranted. Hart said New Zealand should try everything else before making voting compulsory.

The panel has made recommendations about campaign donations.
The panel has made recommendations about campaign donations. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Longer terms

During Newshub's 2020 election debate, both major party leaders of the time - Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins - were in agreement that four-year terms were a good idea. 

Through its submission process, the panel found feedback to a longer parliamentary term was very mixed.

Some felt a four-year term would provide both Governments and political parties more time to produce better policy and laws. But others believed this would result in less accountability for those in power, especially with New Zealand not having an Upper House or a written constitution.

The panel didn't form its own view but believed there was enough argument around the idea that the public should be allowed to voice their opinion through a referendum. This should be supported by a comprehensive and well-funded independent public information campaign, it said.

But referendums on the issue have happened twice before with the same results.

In 1990, 69 percent of participants voted against change, practically the same as the 68 percent who voted against it in 1967.

The panel believes MMP - introduced in 1996 - may have affected voters' views and they deserve a chance to have their say again. The panel doesn't favour politicians deciding - which would require 75 percent of MPs to be in agreement.

Money, money, money

A number of alterations have been made to political donation rules recently, including reducing the threshold at which the name and addresses of donors must be disclosed.

But the panel is going further, including suggesting only allowing registered voters to be able to make donations - meaning companies and unions cannot - and the amount a person can donate to each party and its candidates being capped at $30,000 per election cycle.

These changes alone would be a significant shift for New Zealand's political donations regime. 

Annual party returns for 2022 released last month showed several parties received very large donations that wouldn't be allowed under the panel's recommendation. 

For example the National Party received two $250,000 donations last year. Just on Tuesday, New Zealand First declared a $181,141.69 donation from the estate of environmentalist Hugh Barr.

"We heard a lot about political donations. What we heard from New Zealand is they want a contest of ideas, not a contest of cash," Hart said.

She said feedback suggested people wanted the "smoke and mirrors" taken away and for it to be replaced with "transparency". There is also concern about overseas money getting into our election, Hart said. 

Other changes proposed include making it a requirement to name any donor who gives $1000 or more. However, their address would no longer need to be disclosed.

The broadcasting funding given to political parties would be reallocated to help parties with basic compliance costs and to facilitate outreach with certain communities, like disabled and Māori voters. The funding would be modestly increased and be allocated based on the number of party votes each registered party got in the last election.

The panel has also recommended one set of advertising rules for the whole voting period and getting rid of restrictions on election day in acknowledgement that many people vote now before the big day.

The panel has also recommended changes around entrenching Maori electorates.
The panel has also recommended changes around entrenching Maori electorates. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Electoral Act

The panel's report also recommended the Electoral Act get a "complete rewrite" as it has become outdated and doesn't recognise the importance of Te Tiriti. 

Among the suggestions is to modernise its language, structure and content to make it easier to understand and implement, ensure it gives effect to Te Tiriti / the Treaty of Waitangi and its principles, and overhaul its offences and penalties.

It also wants to entrench more provisions, meaning they would require 75 percent of parliamentarians to agree to change them. This includes the right to vote, the right to stand as a candidate and the Māori electorates.

The panel has made specific mention of the obligation the Crown has to Te Tiriti. 

It said past and present electoral laws have made it more difficult for Māori to vote or be represented in Parliament. These include previously fixing the number of Māori electorates at four.

Until earlier this year, Māori could only choose whether to enrol in Māori electorates or general electorates once every five years. This has now changed to allow Māori to move between the rolls when they wish, other than three months before an election.

But the panel wants restrictions for Māori switching between the rolls pared back further, saying that it is mainly within the three months before a general election that people engage in it. 

"Te Tiriti is part of our constitution. It is," said Hart. "We made a deal and you either want to uphold that deal or you don't. You either believe in the rule of law or you don't believe in the rule of law. We believe in the rule of law and that we need to uphold Te Tiriti o Waitangi."