Electoral Commission Report on the 2014 General Election

The Electoral Commission’s final report on the delivery of the 2014 General Election was tabled in Parliament on 2 April 2015, in accordance with Section 8(1) of the Electoral Act 1993.

The full report can be downloaded under the summary below.

 

Much needs to be done

Administratively, the 2014 general election was a success.  The Electoral Commission (‘the Commission’) met all its performance objectives and voters reported high levels of satisfaction with the services they received.  However, notwithstanding this, the Commission is clear that much work is required if New Zealand’s democracy is to remain healthy and its electoral administration fit for purpose. 

As always, the Commission has identified many lessons, some major, some minor, arising from its review of the election and these are detailed in this report.  But, in the Commission’s view, there are two critical priorities: (1) promoting voter participation; and (2) finding ways to meet the changing needs and expectations of voters, exemplified in part at this election by the massive increase in the number voting before election day, an increase which has fundamental implications for every aspect of electoral administration.

Promoting voter participation needs to become a whole-of-Government priority

Turnout has been in decline in most developed democracies over the last 30 years, but New Zealand’s decline has been particularly steep and persistent.  At the 2011 election, turnout as a percentage of those eligible to enrol dropped to 69.57%, the lowest recorded at a New Zealand Parliamentary election since the adoption of universal suffrage in 1893.  The 2014 result, 72.14%, is the second lowest.  This small increase, while welcome, is no cause for comfort.  New Zealand has a serious problem with declining voter participation.

This is the first election at which the Commission has been able to produce turnout statistics by age and Māori and non-Māori descent.  What this information and the enrolment statistics show is that: those under the age of 50 are less likely to enrol and vote than the rest of the population; those under the age of 34 are significantly less likely to enrol and vote; those who have identified as being of Māori descent on the general roll are less likely to vote than non-Māori of the same age; those on the Māori roll are less likely to vote than Māori of the same age on the general roll; and electorates with high populations of Pasifika and Asian New Zealanders have low participation.

Low participation is not just confined to the young (18-24 year olds) but is spreading up through the age ranges.  The last three general elections have seen enrolment rates fall in all age groups between the ages of 18 and 39. The trend appears to show that enrolment and voting is a habit which needs to be formed young and if it is not non-engagement persists as one ages.  This generational effect, with each new generation being less likely than its predecessor to enrol and vote, means that, unless something changes, we can expect participation to worsen. 

The turnout result for the 2011 election was a turning point for the Commission.  Before then, the Commission saw its role as making voting as accessible as possible.  After 2011 it determined that it also needed to be championing participation.

For the 2014 election, the Commission sought to promote public discussion about the importance of participation, promoted research on the subject, and undertook a modest voter motivation campaign.  The Commission was pleased with the level of public discussion, particularly in the media, about the importance of taking part in elections and by the generally supportive response to its voter motivation campaign.  However, clearly, 2014 was just a beginning and there is much more that needs to be done.

In the Commission’s view, maintaining a healthy democracy should be regarded as a matter of strategic national interest.  A healthy democracy is in everyone’s interest.  It is a quintessential public good.  However, it is not something New Zealanders can afford to take for granted.  The values and culture that underpin it need to be learned and nurtured.  Turning the current trend around will not be easy.  It certainly is not something the Commission can achieve alone.  A

co-ordinated and concerted effort will be required across a number of fronts involving a number of agencies.   For this reason, the Commission believes that promoting high participation in elections needs to be made a whole-of-Government priority with multi-party support and there needs to be a national strategy for promoting participation in our democracy.

Finding ways to meet the changing needs and expectations of voters

The defining feature of the 2014 election was the growth in advance voting.  Overall, 29.3% of those who voted in 2014 did so before election day (compared with 14.7% in 2011).  More people voted in the last three days of advance voting than in the entirety of the advance voting period in 2011.  The ability to vote early proved popular across all electorates and age groups and we can expect further substantial growth in 2017. 

The size of the increase was a surprise to the Commission.  Before 2014, the numbers voting in advance had increased significantly (by about 25% on average) from election to election.  In 2014 the number increased by 100%. The Commission and its staff were thrilled by this turnout.  However, it did place staff and resources under huge pressure.  That staff delivered a great service to early voters and that the preliminary count of advance votes was completed on time was a testament to the hard work, resilience, and commitment of those staff.  However, things will need to change for 2017.

The numbers voting in advance in 2014 represents a fundamental shift in voter behaviour which has major implications for staffing, training, properties, supplies, enrolment, vote issuing, the preliminary count, advertising and public information about voting places and candidates (in short, all aspects of electoral administration).  It has legislative implications not only for the administration of elections but also, of course, for campaign rules.

The Commission believes there is considerable scope to use technology to modernise, integrate and make more relevant the delivery of enrolment and voting services.

Voters’ needs and expectations are changing.  Voters are leaving it until closer to the election to enrol and many expect to be able to enrol and vote at the same time.  They rightly expect from the Commission a simple, coherent enrolment and voting experience with high integrity.

Some voters find aspects of the enrolment and voting process complex.  Postal services, while currently a core feature of electoral administration processes, are in decline and voters are increasingly expecting to conduct business through digital channels.

Developing proposals for a programme of reform, including what might be feasibly achieved in time for 2017, is a major piece of work which the Commission is currently undertaking.  We aim to be in a position to provide further high level proposals to the Government by the end of July 2015.  Detailed programme design work would need to be completed before the end of the year.  We are conscious that any reform would almost certainly require legislative change and that legislation affecting the 2017 election should be in place no later than the end of 2016.

Looking forward

As well as the work that the Commission aims to undertake to improve enrolment and voting services for the next election, the Commission will also be assisting the Justice and Electoral Committee with its Inquiry into the 2014 general election, conducting the Northland by-election and two postal referendums on the New Zealand flag. 

The Government has indicated that e-voting for parliamentary elections will not be a priority for 2017.  The Commission will continue to monitor overseas developments in electronic voting. 

The last legal date for the 2017 general election is 18 November 2017.

Structure of the report

The Commission’s report on the 2014 general election has three parts.  The first part sets out the context and strategy for 2014.  The second covers the delivery of the election including information and statistics.  Part three sets out the key legislative and administrative issues that have come out of the 2014 general election that have implications for future elections.  It also outlines the work that the Commission is doing ahead of the next general election to identify improvements to enrolment and voting services. 

A summary of recommendations is attached as Annex A.

Last updated: 13 April 2015