Some innocents 'scape not the thunderbolt

Willie Jackson is right that the low voting turnout amongst younger age groups is a real problem. But he's wrong to blame the Electoral Commission for following the law that Parliament has made.

Now that Willie Jackson has obtained the waiver needed to allow him to stand as a candidate for Labour despite not having been a party member for the required 12 months, he's setting out to prove he's worth the "winnable list placing" that Andrew Little has promised him.

Exhibit A: a column in today's Manakau Courier on the "emergency with the health of our democracy". Jackson tells us that "[t]oo many young people, Maori and the poorest electorates in our largest cities are not voting", and that "many young, brown and poor people have given up and are not voting, and this is damaging our political culture."

While this is in many ways a continuation of the "missing million" theme that Labour pursued in 2014 to somewhat disappointing results, Jackson nevertheless is right. It is a real problem that the voting rate amongst New Zealanders under 30 is some 20-30 percentage points lower than the voting rate amongst New Zealanders over 60.

Not only does that fact skew a whole host of public policy debates toward the interests of older New Zealanders, it also bodes ill for the future. Because we know from research that voting is a learned behaviour - the earlier you do it, the more likely you are to continue doing so. Contrariwise, if you don't start doing it early, you are more likely never to do so.

So Jackson has identified a real problem. What, then, to do about it? Jackson sees three causes:

Part of the problem is a total lack of civics taught in schools, and part of it is a natural cynicism towards a system they don't see as being for their benefit, and an Electoral Commission that seems to have given up reaching out to these groups altogether.

"Teaching civics" is, of course, the liberal answer to everything. "Cynicism" is what Willie Jackson is there to combat - finally, change we can believe in! But ... the Electoral Commission? What's it got to do with anything?

Well, according to Jackson, the Commission is guilty of generally failing to engage marginalised groups in voting, and specifically places a major barrier in front of them doing so. Let's first consider the general charge - that the Commission isn't sufficiently worried about ensuring that the young and brown vote.

Here's what the Commission said to the Government in its report on the 2014 General Election:

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 [voting] 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.

That doesn't sound to me like a body that "isn't prepared to do its job properly", as Jackson alleges. Rather, it's an admission that the problem is one that a single government agency cannot hope to solve alone, instead requiring (as the Commission says later in its report) "[a] concerted and sustained effort ... by those with the capacity to influence voter participation including politicians, political parties, public sector agencies, the media, academics, educationalists, and community leaders and influencers."

So when Jackson tells us "I'll be out in my community enrolling as many voters possible", he's pretty much doing exactly what the Commission wants to see happen!

What, then, of the specific (and central) part of Jackson's criticism of the Commission? His column recounts how many of the people that he speaks to are fearful of putting their name and address on the electoral roll because that information can then be used by debt collectors or abusive partners, and asks "[w]hy can't the Electoral Commission offer an easy box ticking process for those enrolling to not appear on the published roll to ease the fears of the poor and the abused?"

Let's begin by noting that the Commission itself recognised this problem in its 2014 election report: "feedback from outreach activities suggests that many electors are nonetheless unwilling to enrol because they ... have concerns about their full residential address being available at large." But if it sees the problem, why hasn't it then made it easy for such people to opt off the published electoral roll?

Because the law doesn't let it, that's why. Under the Electoral Act 1993, the name, full residential address and occupation of a person who enrols to vote must be listed on the electoral roll for the electorate in which she resides and these rolls must be both published and made available for public inspection (as well as public purchase for any reason). 

The only exception to this publicity rule is contained in section 115:

[W]here the Electoral Commission is satisfied, on the application of any person, that the publication of that person’s name would be prejudicial to the personal safety of that person or his or her family, the Electoral Commissionmay direct that—

(a) the name, residence, and occupation of that person shall not be published in any main or supplementary roll or in any list or index that may be available for inspection by the public

Note two things about this section. The first is its narrowness; personal and/or family safety are the only grounds for taking your name off the public roll. Avoiding debt collectors or the like simply isn't a lawful reason for having your name removed from the public electoral roll.

Second, a person who wants to have her name excluded from the public rolls has to satisfy the Commission that her (or her family's) safety is at risk should her name and address be made publicly available. It's not something a person can just assert by ticking a box - evidence that some risk exists must be produced.

So Jackson is in effect criticising the Commission for applying the law that Parliament has made for our elections, which seems just a tinsy wee bit harsh. Especially as the Commission itself is alive to the problems caused by free and open access to the personal information contained in the electoral rolls and wants this addressed:

The Commission recommends that electoral rolls (and habitation indexes) no longer be available for general sale, that the inspection of rolls should be limited to offices of the Commission, and that house/flat/apartment number and occupation information should no longer be included in rolls available for inspection.

The Commission recommends that these and other matters concerning access to the rolls be reviewed, in consultation with the Privacy Commissioner, to encourage enrolment and protect the privacy of electors' personal information. The review should consider what access should be available for non-electoral and secondary purposes (i.e. purposes other than the conduct of local and parliamentary elections and referendums, jury lists, the iwi affiliation service, and for parties and candidates) and how access for electoral purposes can be given in a way that protects privacy.

It's great to see Willie Jackson taking an interest in this problem. The more voices - and the more activity - we have urging people to vote, the better. But when proposing solutions, let's make sure we diagnose the real issue ... and not follow Cleopatra in threatening that the innocent messenger "shalt be whipp'd with wire, and stew'd in brine, Smarting in lingering pickle."