Pressure for a firm commitment on loosening eligibility rules for voters stranded by Covid

The Government has still not committed to changing eligibility rules for overseas voters in time for next year’s election, despite concerns the Covid-19 pandemic could lead to some being disenfranchised.

It has also indicated that any such change will be temporary, with work on a permanent fix bundled into an independent panel looking at New Zealand’s wider electoral laws.

In January, Parliament’s justice committee issued a majority recommendation that the eligibility rules be changed “to address situations where voters have been prevented from returning to New Zealand by circumstances out of their control, such as a pandemic”.

While the number of Covid-19 travel restrictions in place had reduced compared to those ahead of the 2020 election, the committee said it recognised that travel had been “severely curtailed” at the time and other emergencies could occur in future.

In a differing view, the National Party suggested only temporary eligibility changes for the 2023 election, with justice spokesman Paul Goldsmith telling Newsroom the party favoured a more circumspect approach.

In a formal response to the committee’s report, the Government notably declined to include an eligibility fix among the recommendations it aimed to progress ahead of the election.

Instead, it would “consider” extending the period of time overseas voters could be outside New Zealand without losing their eligibility.

In an endorsement of National’s position, the Government said: “It is envisaged that any such amendment would apply to the 2023 general election.”

“The broader issue of voting eligibility involves a number of policy issues, and the Government considers the independent review [of electoral law] should be left free to consider these issues.”

That review, set to report back late next year with any changes taking place by the 2026 election at the earliest, was also the best place for the consideration of three other recommendations from the justice committee: ensuring electoral laws were sufficiently resilient during emergencies, reviewing the rules for election day advertising, and supporting further debate on strengthening civic education as well as the voting age.

The Government aimed to implement five remaining recommendations before the election through minor changes to electoral law or regulations.

Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman says New Zealand is lagging behind like-minded countries when it comes to voting rights for overseas Kiwis. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Green Party justice spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman told Newsroom the Government needed to “commit unequivocally” to suspending the eligibility rules ahead of the election, given the impact the criteria had already had on some expat Kiwis.

“The hardship in returning to New Zealand during the pandemic was known and not acted upon last election, now the review of the general election has made it clear that this is necessary.”

Ghahraman said the voting rules had always favoured those with the financial means to come home, with families with young children or overseas students at greater risk of being excluded from voting.

Canadians and Americans abroad kept their voting rights forever, while British citizens could spend 15 years away before they were disenfranchised.

“A three-year limit here means that even in normal times New Zealand is not in line with other countries, let alone when global travel is severely impacted by the pandemic.”

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi said the Government would have more to say on the issue soon, with the views of overseas voters made clear through the select committee process.

“Given the pandemic, we need to be pragmatic to make sure that everybody who wants to be able to vote in the next election can.”

If the Government did agree to a change, it would need to be done quickly so the Electoral Commission was ready and voters had time to understand the effect, Faafoi said.

It was best for the independent review panel to look at the overall eligibility settings as part of its work, he said.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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