My colors, my honor; my colors, my all

Did you know MPs are considering making it an offence, punishable by a fine of up to $20,000, to wear a green ribbon in your hair on election day? If you think this is silly, you'd better tell them so ... soon.

I've posted on the issue of the Government's proposed further tightening of controls on election day campaigning a couple of times already. It's a slightly niche topic, so I promise this will be the last time I raise it. But it's still important enough for me to give it one last going over.

To recap, amongst the fairly uncontroversial measures in the Government's Electoral Amendment Bill is a provision that would further constrain how people can behave on election day. Basically, the proposed law removes an exception to the general rule that you can't display any partisan political material on election day that permits:

ribbons, streamers, rosettes, or items of a similar nature, which are worn or displayed by any person (not being an electoral official) on his or her person or on any vehicle in party colours or a party lapel badge worn by any person (not being an electoral official).

So, in short, it proposes making it an offence (punishable by a fine of up to $20,000) to on election day pin a red rosette on your coat, or tie a green ribbon in your hair, or wear your NZ First lapel badge. Unless, that is, you are acting as a scrutineer for a candidate or political party - in which case it still will be lawful for you to wear a party rosette  within a polling place.

Why is the Government proposing this? Well, it is based on a recommendation contained in the Electoral Commission’s report on the 2011 election, which was then picked up by the Justice and Electoral Committee in its report on the 2011 election. The Electoral Commission stated:

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.

Quite what these "problems" were did not get any further discussion, but I think we can conclude that they amounted to "people complained to us about people wearing these things". Because the Commission's report goes on to say:

The biggest source of complaint on election day was scrutineers wearing party rosettes in polling places – something the law currently allows them to do. The Commission received 77 complaints and polling place managers had over 187 complaints from voters about scrutineers wearing rosettes.

Now, the Electoral Commission is an institution with a purpose. That purpose is running elections in a smooth and problem-free manner. As such, any complaints about how the election is run are an irritant that the Commission would like to see go away. And if changing the law gets rid of such complaints, then that is "a good thing" from the Commission's perspective.

(Although, note that the proposed law change won't even entirely fix the problem of complaints, because it will still let scrutineers wear their rosettes in polling places ... which was what caused more than 2/3rds of the complaints in 2011!) 

But for the rest of us, we might ask "what exactly is it that is going to be improved by this change?" And furthermore, we might ask "is that improvement really worth further encroaching on the right of individuals to demonstrate their party loyalties on election day?" Because the proposal has just that effect - it criminalises people who want to tell the world on election day where their partisan loyalties lie. Not, you might note, in an effort to convince others to think likewise ... but rather just to identify yourself with a particular political view of the world.

Being told you can't do this on election day (by means of rosettes, ribbons and the like) wouldn't be that great an abasement of our freedoms. It's not like this proposal threatens to destroy democracy in its entirety. But by the same token, it's not a completely inconsequential restriction on how people can behave. Some people are very, very proud of their party commitments, and really, really want the world to know of them. So why shouldn't they be allowed to do so on the day when, after all, party politics hits its highest pitch?

Here we might turn our attention to the advice that the Attorney-General received on the Electoral Amendment Bill; and in particular, the reasons that this advice provided for why the proposed amendment is a justifiable limit on the right to freedom of expression contained in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. That advice says that the limit is justified because:

The removal of the exception for the display of party colours is consistent with the overall restriction upon electoral canvassing on polling day, and again appears consistent with the objective of fair and orderly elections

While reasonable minds may differ, I think this advice is a bit short of the mark. Sure, we already tightly restrict what people can say on election day: we make candidates and parties take down all their advertising; we ban interfering with people on the way to cast their vote; we even prohibit processions to the voting booths. But saying "we limit expressive rights already, so it's OK to limit them even more" fails to consider whether the reasons for that extra restriction are any good. Equally, the point of the restrictions on election day campaigning - to ensure "fair and orderly elections" - may be acceptable. But why are these new restrictions needed to attain that objective?

The advice given to the Attorney-General on those points is noteably thin. So, with respect, I'm going to disagree with its conclusion and suggest that this proposal isn't consistent with the NZBORA: the proposed law change limits an important right (to express your political allegience in a way that you choose) without demonstrably justifying the need for that limit. 

Which then brings me to the point of this post.

You might be the kind of person who likes demonstrating your party loyalties on election day. Or, you might not particularly go in for that yourself, but also you're not that keen on laws being made that take away other peoples rights without any convincing reason for doing so - especially when those rights relate to how they can express themselves at election time. 

If you are either of these kinds of people, then it's incumbent on you to do something about it. Because as things stand, this proposal will probably just sail through in the middle of an otherwise pretty uncontroversial bill. The only thing that will get in its way is if enough people write to the Justice and Electoral Commission and tell them that they don't want it to become law.

I'm not calling on you to save democracy. I'm just saying that if you take five minutes to make an online submission, you might help stop the world becoming just that little bit greyer.