Legal Beagle by Graeme Edgeler


Tastes like democracy

I have fond memories of the 2005 election.

I woke up early enough. I spent a couple of hours doing not a whole lot at home, and then walked the 200 or 300 metres to the Karori West Normal School hall. There weren't a lot of us at around a quarter past eleven, but there were a few others just heading into, or out of, the voting booth and over the hours that had preceded and followed our voting a steady trickle of voters came and went. Some came with their kids, who waited patiently in the foyer – or on the swings outside – and got to wear the orange “I voted” sticker on the way home.

It felt right.

My first two elections weren't like that. In 1999 I cast a special vote before I returned to Tokoroa for the holidays; in 2002 I voted at Clyde Quay School in Mount Victoria, where I'd been living for less than a year. But in 2005 I'd been living nearby for a while, I'd been to the school gala and in the suburbs – where people with families and mortgages and responsibilities live – the day felt special.

It felt like democracy.

New Zealand elections have a solemnity attached to them. There are rules prohibiting any political advertising or displays on election day. On polling day, it's illegal to within view or hearing of a public place hold (or take part in) a “demonstration or procession having direct or indirect reference to the poll by any means whatsoever”. We get to vote and no-one can get in our way.

And it's among the reasons why I think internet voting is a terrible idea.

It's an idea that has recently been raised. The Chief Electoral Office (which runs our elections) recently released a paper, suggesting we might conduct a small trial of e-voting in 2014, followed by larger trials at the 2017 and 2020 elections, before deciding whether to adopt e-voting for the 2023 election. It seems slow (perhaps thorough), the legislation – which would need a Parliamentary supermajority – could be introduced about a year into the next Parliament, and passed about a year later through it, but the exercise in moving from a paper ballot to an electronic one is a massive undertaking – even simple questions like 'how does a scrutineer work?' have no obvious answer.

We've had the secret ballot for over a hundred years in New Zealand. If you even try to look at whom someone is voting for in a polling place you can go to prison for two years. That's four times longer than the maximum penalty for a candidate who destroys ballot papers (a pet peeve of mine with our electoral law).

Why we'd want to rid ourselves of the secret ballot, I'm not sure; I've got to say I'm pretty happy with it. I've no doubt there are families in which one partner has always secretly voted one way, with their partner thinking they agreed the entire time. While a student, I worked for a polling company, and remember a couple of calls where the woman at the address had asked her husband whom they voted for – it was his voice that was heard that night, but in the polling booth, it was her voice.

Internet voting abandons this. And the 'convenience' just isn't worth it.

The sense of democracy as a community undertaking would be lost if we were able to stagger the election over two weeks. I very much doubt there would be more than a minimal effect on voter turnout, and I wouldn't be surprised if the decline in civil society I think it would precipitate actually lead to decreased interest from the politically disinclined.

We vote because we think we should. Because when we were younger our parents took us with them when they were voting and it was solemn and seemed important. We vote because there's one day every three years when voting is what you do – what everyone does.

Because it feels like democracy.

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