Overseas voting opens today, but poor voter turnout in previous elections points to the possibility that close to a million overseas Kiwis could again fail to exercise their right. Laura Walters reports

The Covid-19 economic and social recovery, climate change, and referendums on cannabis legalisation and euthanasia – issues that not only affect every Kiwi, but the world.

This election will see New Zealanders given the opportunity to vote on some of the biggest issues facing a generation, but there’s concern eligible overseas Kiwis may be missing from the polls – again.

Recently, the Electoral Commission has made a concerted push to increase voter turnout, especially among under-represented groups, with help from Orange Guy.

For example, there have been campaigns to induce the much-talked-about youth-quake.

Last election, turnout for those aged between 18 and 24 rose from 62.7 percent in 2014, to 69.3 percent. This shows the focus on under-represented groups is important, and clearly needed.

But New Zealand’s diaspora population is often forgotten.

Despite being the equivalent of the South Island electoral population, and having the ability to hold significant sway over the election outcome, almost one million Kiwis are consistently absent when it comes time to count the vote.

About one million New Zealanders live overseas, and while there aren’t precise records, best estimates put the number of those eligible to vote between 600,000 and 750,000 (based on eligibility rates within the country).

In the last election, just 10 percent of those eligible voters cast their ballot.

The 61,452 who did vote in 2017 was an increase on the 38,096 who voted in 2014, and the dismal 20,269 who voted in 2011.

The Electoral Commission’s latest figures showed 67,000 overseas Kiwis are currently enrolled to vote.

Issues being raised this election don’t just apply to Kiwis currently living in New Zealand.

Parties’ 2020 environmental, social and economic policies have the ability to impact the country for decades to come.

And then there are the two once-in-a-generation referendums.

Add to that issues that directly affect the New Zealand diaspora, such as pension portability, student loan schemes, and immigration settings.

And tension points like the decision to charge quarantine fees for those returning to the country and the lack of government support for New Zealanders in Australia, brought to the fore by Covid-19.

“Our democracy does not end at our borders.”

When Newsroom covered the issues facing the diaspora community this election, many said they felt unheard and forgotten by politicians back home.

But returning New Zealander and sociologist Tracey Lee said if overseas New Zealanders want to be heard, they have to take responsibility.

Politicians pay attention to the voter public, Lee said.

“Show you have a voice, and I think you will find you have it; you will be heard.”

New Zealand has one of the largest overseas diaspora communities in the OECD, reflecting about 20 percent of the country’s domestic population.

“The overseas Kiwi vote is so important and yet so dismal.”

In an effort to get overseas New Zealanders to the polls this general election, Lee has launched a non-partisan initiative that aims to raise awareness and increase overseas voter participation.

“Our democracy does not end at our borders.”

Lee remembers voting during her years overseas – from the consulate in New York, by fax in Shanghai, and then online in Amsterdam.

“In an age when other nations are fighting for the right to vote and be counted, it’s never been more important to exert your right to vote.”

Once Kiwi expats could say it was too hard, but with changes brought in by the Electoral Commission, including eVoting, there was no longer a practical excuse.

“In an age when other nations are fighting for the right to vote and be counted, it’s never been more important to exert your right to vote.”

While overseas New Zealanders have the right to vote – as long as they had been home in the past three years – not all diaspora communities are so lucky.

Ireland has a large and active diaspora community, with estimates putting the number of overseas Irish between three million and 70 million. 

But they do not yet have the right to vote from overseas, despite campaigns for a referendum on this issue.

After decades of disputes, Greece’s overseas community recently won this right, but the act of voting is expected to be difficult in practice, with voters having to travel to select voting points.

Part of ‘New Zealandness’ was global fluidity, Lee said.

At any one time, a large proportion of New Zealanders lived overseas, and there was a growing trend of circular migration.

“New Zealanders – irrespective of whether you’re here or away – you’re still very much participating in New Zealand in terms of the economy, but also the hopes for the nation, and the desire for where we’re going long term – not just in the next three years.”

The decision to charge some returning Kiwis fees to cover the cost of quarantine and managed isolation has been a tension point with overseas New Zealanders. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Eventually, Lee hoped New Zealand would create Parliamentary representation for overseas Kiwis, as 11 other countries already did.

This idea has been discussed previously by the short-lived New Zealand Expatriate Party, which also campaigned for increased rights for New Zealanders living in Australia, and the rule that stopped Kiwis voting if they’d been out of the country for more than three years.

But Lee acknowledges the country wasn’t there yet – first overseas Kiwis needed to show up to the polls.

The Every Kiwi Vote Counts campaign launched on Wednesday to mark the open of overseas voting for the October 17 general election.

The tongue-in-cheek public service message riffs off the very current issue of foreign influence, and election interference.

Lee said they used a provocative device to break the inertia of overseas New Zealanders, cheekily implying that other nations – like Russia – were more active in influencing national elections than eligible overseas New Zealand voters.  

“We’re using meddling as a proxy for participation,” she said.

Ultimately, it was about encouraging people to participate and understand living overseas did not make Kiwis bystanders in democracy.

– Overseas voting opens on September 30. To view the campaign, and for further information, go to Every Kiwi Vote Counts or the Electoral Commission website.

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