Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Solutions and problems

Today the NZ Parliament’s Justice and Electoral Committee reported on the 2011 General Election. It was, um, interesting.

I found out the report was released from a Tweet (I forget who it was from). I immediately went and downloaded it and read it right then (yes, I really am that much of a politics nerd). My overriding impression is that while some points were valid, overall the report seemed to be made up of solutions looking for problems.

Most of the report is taken up with the minutiae of running elections in New Zealand, some of it interesting, if only slightly, to people it does not affect; most of it is completely uninteresting. Download and read the report for yourself to determine which you think is which.

For me, one of the eyebrow-raising moments was in Section 5 “Statutory and regulatory frameworks”, specifically, the parts about “Election Advertising.” The committee report said:

We recommend to the Government that it consider prohibiting electioneering activity on election day, including the wearing of rosettes, lapel badges, ribbons, streamers, and party apparel, other than the wearing of a party rosette by a scrutineer inside a polling station.

Quite frankly, I think this is utterly daft. Under current law, anyone can wear an official party rosette (for American readers: A bit like a ribbon one might win at a fair, in the colours of a part and with the party’s logo on it). They can also have ribbons or streamers in party colours affixed to their car or person (no bumper stickers, though), so long as they don’t have the party logo. On election day, people can also wear lapel pins with party name and logo.

The point of all these somewhat odd and complicated rules is to prevent voters from feeling intimidated or feeling coerced. While a few hundred complaints are received by the Electoral Commission every election, and even though 76 percent, according to the report, deal with this stuff, there has apparently NEVER been any suggestion that any voter felt intimidated or coerced under the law as it is now. Why change?!

Current law restricts free speech: People are not allowed to openly express political opinions on election day except in certain restricted ways (and even less so online, which the report doesn’t adequately address). The committee heard no evidence that the situation under the current law has caused any harm. Even so, the committee wants to further restrict freedom of speech—why?!

I was a Scrutineer (what we in Illinois called “poll watchers”) in two elections: 1999 and 2002. In both cases, I wore a Labour Party rosette in the polling place (weird to me as an American-born Kiwi), and in both cases I could hear voters asking elections officials about it (they said, of course, it was permitted under the law). To be honest, as a Kiwi of American origin, I’m not sure that scrutineers should be allowed to wear party rosettes IN the polling place, but I see no reason to further restrict other people’s free speech—and, to reiterate, the committee is NOT proposing to end rosettes in polling places, just an end to such displays for others.

The committee report notes the rising importance of early/advance voting (before election day) and notes that the Labour Party members of the committee saw no point in the election day restrictions because “no such restrictions apply prior to polling day and in light of the increasing and significant numbers of voters who choose to exercise an early vote.” I completely agree with that.

Still, other parts are worth note: The committee dismisses stand-alone referenda, and suggests that the government move toward electronic voting, make things easier and better for Kiwis living overseas, and a whole host of other things. But the area I’ve highlighted is one where I think they got it totally wrong.

Democracy is both robust and fragile: It can survive despite all the odds, and yet it does best with careful nurturing. The report of the committee advocates some minor and needed tweaks to New Zealand’s election system, misses others, and makes wacky suggestions about one—like a solution in search of a problem.

Democracy, however, is not a problem to be solved; attempts to restrict it are.

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