Only a week into early voting, complaints have been laid with the Electoral Commission about misinformation being provided to Maori electors, causing confusion and non-voting amongst Maori electors and refreshing previous claims of deliberate sabotage by polling booth staff of Maori votes. Veronica Tawhai, a Maori politics lecturer and citizenship educator at Massey University, has received numerous complaints from Maori electors across the country regarding the Electoral Commission. However, her requests that a memo be sent immediately to all staff to ensure accurate information is being provided to electors appears to have been ignored, calling into question the commitment of the Commission to ‘democracy for all’.
“Maori and particularly young Maori are constantly criticised for either being uninformed, uninterested or apathetic when it comes to participating in political activities such as voting” states Ms Tawhai, “and yet when our people attempt to be proactive in exercising our democratic rights – such as casting an early vote – some are prevented from doing so due to ignorance amongst officials that are meant to be assisting in the process. This is completely unacceptable and something the Electoral Commission and Chief Electoral Officer need to rectify immediately”.
2017 marks the 150 year anniversary of the Maori electorate seats, when four seats were initially introduced to New Zealand’s electoral system with the Maori Representation Act 1867. This occurred early in New Zealand electoral system history, only fourteen years after the first Settler Parliament elections held in 1853 and the passing of the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852. Yet, despite this 150 year history and the seats being the focus of much debate and change over this time, including the introduction of the Maori Electoral Option in 1993 and the ability of the number of seats to increase or decrease according to the Maori Electoral Roll, there is little knowledge of the Maori electoral seats, their history or significance amongst wider New Zealand.
“Many New Zealanders unfortunately have little to no knowledge of the Maori seats, something we need to remedy with future citizenship education, but that Electoral Commission staff are themselves ignorant of the basic make-up of our electoral system in an election year when they are responsible for assisting electors is unthinkable” states Ms Tawhai, “and that complaints made to the Electoral Commission by many people, including myself, to rectify the situation are being outright ignored is just outrageous”.
Some of the complaints received about Electoral Commission staff, including those manning polling booths and phone lines, includes:
• Staff being unaware of the Maori roll and insisting electors are unregistered when their names don’t appear on the General roll;
• Staff having difficulty locating Maori names on the Maori roll, even when given identification by Maori electors;
• Staff giving incorrect information about the Maori electorates, electorate areas and where electors can be enrolled;
• Maori enrolled in Maori electorates being given the wrong voting form and having to argue with staff to find and be provided with the correct form;
• Electors on the General roll being told they are unable to vote for a ‘Maori party’ if they are not on the Maori roll;
• Complaints from Maori electors being ignored by those responsible for hearing complaints, such as managers of polling booths.
“In the absolute minimum, anyone with responsibilities within the Electoral Commission should have an understanding of our electoral system in order to ensure they are able to fulfil their roles in assisting all New Zealanders, including Maori, to exercise our vote as is our basic democratic right whether we be on the General or Maori roll. I demand that there be:
(a) A Maori electorate specialist appointed to each polling booth throughout the country immediately, to ensure full and accurate information is being given to electors this election;
(b) A review of the background knowledge and understanding of all Electoral Commission staff undertaken, and steps made to ensure they are properly informed and prepared to undertake the job required of them now and for future elections, and;
(c) Electoral and citizenship education tailored to the needs of Aotearoa New Zealand given priority by Government to ensure the proper exercise and fulfilment of democratic rights by all New Zealanders into the future”