Electoral Commission Report on the 2011 General Election and Referendum

The Electoral Commission’s final report on the delivery of the 2011 General Election and Referendum on the Voting System was tabled on 2 May 2012, in accordance with Section 8(1) of the Electoral Act 1993.

The full report can be downloaded under the summary below.

Main Points

Establishment of single electoral agency

The first phase of the reform to establish a single electoral agency responsible for all aspects of parliamentary electoral administration proceeded smoothly with the new Electoral Commission coming into effect as scheduled on 1 October 2010.

The final stage of the integration, the transfer of the enrolment functions to the Commission, will be completed by 1 July 2012. The two stage approach was adopted to minimise risks to the delivery of the 2011 election.

The Commission’s objective

The Electoral Act 1993 (the Act) sets out the Commission’s objective as:

“… to administer the electoral system impartially, efficiently, effectively, and in a way that -

(a) facilitates participation in parliamentary democracy; and

(b) promotes understanding of the electoral system and associated matters; and

(c) maintains confidence in the administration of the electoral system” (section 4C Electoral Act 1993). 

Voter research shows this objective was met and public confidence in the administration of elections was maintained.

The Commission’s strategy

The Commission believed public confidence in the administration of elections would be maintained if, in delivering the general election and referendum, it –

(a) Delivered voters the same level of service in polling places they received in 2008 (that is, polite, efficient staff and no long queues);

(b) Achieved the same reporting times for parliamentary preliminary results that it achieved in 2008 (that is, 100% of advance vote results in by 8.30pm, 50% of polling places reported by 10.00pm and the remainder by 11.30pm);

(c) Provided a good indication of the referendum result on election night (that is, 100% of referendum advance vote results reported by 8.30pm).

Voter satisfaction

Voter survey results showed 88% of voters were satisfied or very satisfied with the information they received before the election, the voting process, and their voting experience.  

The vast majority of voters considered the time spent in the polling place reasonable (98%), found the parliamentary (94%) and referendum papers (83%) straightforward, and were satisfied with the timeliness of the results (87%). 

Voters were very positive (93%+) about the location and layout of polling places and the politeness, efficiency and knowledge of electoral staff. These results are on a par with those for 2008.

Voter participation

Overall turnout as a percentage of those eligible to enrol fell 6% from 2008 (from 75.73% to 69.57%). The last time there was a similarly large drop was between the 1999 election and the early mid-winter election in 2002 when turnout fell 5% (from 77.19% to 72.49%).  Turnout in 2005 was 77.05%.

Non-voters gave largely the same reasons as in 2008 for not voting: “other commitments” (14%), “work commitments” (9%), “couldn’t be bothered” (14%), “could not work out who to vote for” (11%). However, the number of non-voters giving the response “it was obvious who would win so why bother”, as a factor influencing their decision not to vote, increased from 19% in 2008 to 31% in 2011.

Facilitating participation is a key objective of the new Commission. Whilst it cannot be accountable for turnout (because it cannot control all the variables which affect turnout), the Commission can and will champion voter participation and lead efforts to turn the decline around.

An immediate area of focus for the Commission will be civics education.  Declining voter participation is a world-wide longstanding generational problem and will not be easily or quickly turned around. However, an obvious starting point is our newest generation. 

The Commission’s 2011 Kids Voting programme reached 46,659 school students in the weeks before the election and has received extremely positive feedback. This is an initiative the Commission intends to expand, resources permitting.

Delivery of general election and referendum on voting system

The 2011 election was the most administratively challenging since 1999 because of the referendum on New Zealand’s voting system. 

To deliver the same level of service to voters as in 2008, substantially more election day staff (around 5,000), training, supplies and space in polling places were required. This greater scale increased the complexity of managing the election. 

However, the streamlined process for issuing referendum papers, the use of colour to guide staff and voters through the process, the decision not to count referendum papers in polling places on election night, and the additional staff, training and resources had their desired effect.

Christchurch was an area of particular focus. To counter infrastructure and communication obstacles the Commission actively promoted advance voting in Christchurch. Advance voting in the badly affected Christchurch East and Christchurch Central electorates was substantially higher than the national average and turnout in the wider Christchurch area was only slightly less than the national average.

Advance voting

334,558 people voted before election day (14.7% of all votes cast compared to 11.4% in 2008). The removal of the statutory requirement for advance voters to complete a declaration before voting simplified and sped up the process.

Advance voting went smoothly. However, given its growing importance, it would be timely to review the regulation of advance voting. For example, at present no provision is made for candidate scrutineers or the restriction of election advertising in the vicinity of advance voting places.

Overseas voting

In contrast to advance voting, the numbers voting from overseas fell by 35% to 21,496 (33,278 in 2008).

42% of overseas voters returned their voting papers by fax in 2011. However, overseas voters reported increasing difficulties finding and using fax machines. The Commission will explore enabling overseas voters to scan and upload their voting papers and declarations to a secure location on the website for 2014.

The Commission recommends changes to the deadlines in regulations for the return of overseas votes to make it easier for overseas postal votes to be received in time. 

Election advertising

A new election advertising and finance regime came into force on 1 January 2011. By and large it appears to have bedded in well with high levels of compliance and a relatively small number of breaches referred to the Police. 

The Commission provided guidance material to candidates, parties, and third parties on the new rules in February and updated these in July. Guidance for broadcasters was issued in August.

The Commission received 718 advisory opinion requests dealing with 1099 separate advertisements for the 2011 election of which 90% were requested by members of Parliament and over 50% were requested within the seven weeks before the beginning of the regulated period. The average response time for requests was five working days.

Surveys of party secretaries, candidates, third parties and broadcasters showed most found that the guidance material and advisory opinions provided were useful, timely and clear.

The extent to which electioneering on the internet and social media should be regulated and how any regulation might be effectively managed are questions that warrant further consideration and debate.

The exemption to the general prohibition on electioneering on election day permitting the display of party lapel badges and rosettes, ribbons and streamers in party colours continued to cause problems. It would be simpler and less confusing, and remove a source of considerable annoyance to many voters, if the exemption was removed and this is what the Commission recommends.

Delivery of the referendum information and education programme

The Commission adopted a two stage approach to the programme. Stage one, from May to mid-October, raised general awareness about the referendum and provided comprehensive information for those who wished to engage early on with the subject matter. 

Stage two, from mid-October, delivered the key messages to all voters through mass media channels and directed those who wanted more information to the website or freephone information service. The Commission engaged with major media to encourage and assist them to report accurately on the referendum.

Every registered elector received information about the referendum in their enrolment update pack in early June. Every household received a more detailed brochure in mid-October and every registered elector received the same information in their EasyVote pack a week before election day. 

Comprehensive information about the voting systems was published by the Commission in all major newspapers in the week before election day. People who wanted more information were encouraged to go to the Commission’s referendum website or to call the freephone number.

Overall, the Commission’s programme was a success. 93% of voters were aware of the referendum and 81% of these voters felt very confident or fairly confident to make a decision. Knowledge of the key messages increased substantially. For example, 53% of registered electors knew that if there was a vote to keep MMP then an independent review of MMP would be held, compared to 2% in May.

However, it is fair to say that the referendum did not appear to excite a high level of public interest. The Commission received only 2,955 enquiries about the referendum (out of a total of 60,131 enquiries relating to the election). 

Conduct of future referenda

Serious consideration should be given to holding future referenda by stand-alone postal vote rather than with general elections, as the Justice and Electoral Committee recommended for citizens initiated referenda after the 1999 general election.  

Holding referenda with parliamentary elections makes an already complex process significantly more complex. The additional staff, training, supplies and space required to deliver the referendum with the parliamentary election cost around $8.5m. A stand-alone postal referendum could be delivered for a lesser cost.

The process is more complex for voters also. The question is whether voters are able to give proper attention to a referendum and a parliamentary election when they are held together or, as the Justice and Electoral Committee feared following the 1999 election, they both become “muddied in the agitation of the electoral contest”.

Turnout is one reason given for holding referenda with parliamentary elections. However, if the public regard the subject matter of a postal referendum to be of sufficient importance they will turn out, as 80.3% of electors did for the 1997 postal referendum on compulsory superannuation.

Service to Māori voters

To address a concern regularly raised in the run-up to an election, the Commission proposes that consideration be given to allowing voters of Māori descent to change roll type once each electoral cycle instead of holding a five-yearly Māori Electoral Option.  

Proposed improvements to vote issuing and scrutiny processes

The Commission recommends the Act be amended to authorise the Commission to use an EasyVote card as the record an ordinary vote has been issued (instead of marking a voter off the electoral roll) and as evidence a special voter is eligible to vote (instead of requiring a voter to complete a declaration). 

This would simplify and speed up vote issuing, reduce special votes, and improve the accuracy and efficiency of the scrutiny of the rolls.  Voters without EasyVote cards would continue to be processed as they currently are. 

Enforcement

Currently the electoral legislation requires electoral offences to be referred to Police. The Commission is concerned that electoral matters are not able to be given sufficient priority. 

Effective and timely investigation and prosecution of electoral offences is critical to ensuring public confidence in the integrity of the democratic process. The Commission recommends that consideration be given to how this can be better achieved. 

Looking forward

In this report the Commission identifies a range of areas in which it will seek to make administrative improvements. The report also raises a number of issues that have legislative implications.

The Commission sought guidance from the Government earlier this year on whether funding would be available to deliver for 2014 an option of internet and, perhaps, telephone voting for a limited class of New Zealanders (for example, overseas voters and blind and disabled voters) and has been advised that, in the current financial situation, this cannot be given priority. 

Nonetheless, we will continue to monitor the results of overseas electronic voting initiatives and look for other ways to utilise technology to improve electoral processes. 

In addition to planning for the next general election and any possible by-elections or citizens initiated referenda, other key priorities for the Commission are to:

Review MMP and report to the Minister of Justice by 31 October 2012 in accordance with the Electoral Referendum Act 2010;

Complete the work necessary to take over statutory responsibility for enrolment from the Chief Registrar of Electors of NZ Post from 1 July 2012 in accordance with the Electoral (Administration) Amendment Act 2011; and

Conduct the 2013 Māori Electoral Option, provide administrative support to the Representation Commission which will convene in October 2013 and complete its work in 2014 to determine the number and boundaries of electorates for the 2014 and 2017 elections.

The last possible date for the next election is 24 January 2015.

Last updated: 14 January 2013