New Zealand debates autumn poll delay

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern has received largely positive reviews so far for her government’s handling of Covid-19. Now she is embroiled in a debate over whether or not to move the planned date of the general election from September to November.

Among the parties who want the delay are the opposition National Party and Ms Adern’s own coalition partners New Zealand First. There may, of course, be tactical reasons for a particular party requesting a delay and the most recent polls (although these are all from before the pandemic) pointed to New Zealand First losing their places in parliament.

There are a vast number of competing issues to balance when looking at issues like this, and I wrote about many of them before. Going ahead when there is a risk to voters, poll workers and campaigners is reckless. But delaying elections unless absolutely necessary is anti-democratic. And trying to come up with a quick fix such as all-postal ballots leaves the way open to confusion and to fraud.

The Director of OSCE/ODIHR, Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, has written a powerful piece about the proposal by the Polish lower house to go ahead with elections there on May 10th. She points out that elections are not just about polling day itself, but need to have a proper campaign with both government and opposition able to reach out to voters. Moving to a postal ballot after a campaign period dominated by government figures on state-controlled media during a lockdown does not fit, she suggests. New Zealand is not the same as Poland, of course, but the need to have an open campaign as well as workable polling day should apply in all democracies.

There is no easy answer, of course. Scientists suggest that Covid-19 may ease before coming back as a second wave and so there might only be a small window of comparative freedom in which elections could be held. A number of countries besides New Zealand are due to hold (or have re-scheduled) elections this autumn and will have to make similar decisions.