One week into early voting, concerns are being raised about Electoral Commission staff allegedly undermining Māori voters.
Massey University Māori politics lecturer Veronica Tawhai claims she has received numerous complaints from Māori electors regarding the conduct of Electoral Commission staff.
“Māori and particularly young Māori are constantly criticised for either being uninformed, uninterested or apathetic when it comes to participating in political activities such as voting,” Ms Tawhai said.
“And yet when our people attempt to be proactive in exercising our democratic rights, some are prevented from doing so due to ignorance amongst officials that are meant to be assisting in the process.”
Ms Tawhai said she has heard complaints about staff, including those manning polling booths and phone lines, unaware of the Māori roll and insisting electors are unregistered when their names don’t appear on the general roll.
Some complainants, she said, have had difficulty obtaining the correct information about Māori electorates, including being given the wrong voting form and having to argue with staff to be provided with the correct form.
She also claims some election workers had difficulty locating Māori names on the Māori roll, even when given identification by Māori electors.
“Many New Zealanders unfortunately have little to no knowledge of the Māori seats, [but] that Electoral Commission staff are themselves ignorant… is unthinkable.
“In the absolute minimum, anyone with responsibilities within the Electoral Commission should have an understanding of our electoral system in order to ensure they are able to fulfil their roles in assisting all New Zealanders, including Māori, to exercise our vote as is our basic democratic right whether we be on the general or Māori roll.”
Ms Tawhai is calling for a Māori electorate specialist to be appointed to each polling booth throughout the country, steps taken to ensure all Electoral Commission staff are properly informed and prepared to undertake their job, and improved electoral and citizenship education.
Labour Party campaign manager Andrew Kirton tweeted that he has heard “multiple reports of Electoral Commission staff in advance voting booths not allowing people to enrol”, and said he has raised this with the commission.
Electoral Commission chief electoral officer Alicia Wright said the matter is being taken seriously.
“It is important to us that all voters are able to have their say in this election. We want everyone to have a good experience when they go to vote, and if that doesn’t happen, we want to hear about it.”
Ms Wright said the Electoral Commission has issued a reminder of processes to staff in the wake of Ms Tawhai’s statement.
“During the election period, we have about 15,000 people working in our voting places. They all receive training, including on the general roll and the Māori Roll, and every voting place issues both Māori and general electorate ballot papers. Our staff are trained about the importance of checking to ensure they issue the correct voting paper to each voter.
“If voters are concerned about their experience at a voting place, they should send an email including as much detail as possible to email@example.com. Telling the commission when and where they voted will help us investigate and resolve any issues that have been raised.”
Ms Wright said the commission has been in touch with Veronica Tawhai to discuss the issues, and they are looking into a small number of complaints received from other voters.
2017 marks the 150-year anniversary of the Māori electorate seats, when four seats were initially introduced to New Zealand’s electoral system with the Māori Representation Act 1867.