Time to fix up some election law oddities

Winston Peters has not had a good election. Had he known the date of the election well in advance, he might have had a better one.

In June, after a flurry of well-aimed attacks on the government in May, New Zealand First was averaging 10 per cent in opinion polls. Peters was promoting himself as an alternative national leader to Helen Clark and Don Brash and his party as well clear of the other minors.

But he fell victim to Clark’s cat-and-mouse game with the election date. His party’s score is its second worst in its 12 years.

Unsurprisingly, there is a write-in poll on New Zealand First’s website asking whether the Constitution Act should be amended to set a fixed date for the election every three years. Yes, said 67 per cent.

This idea at one stage gained enough momentum to prod Clark to muse on it — but tagged to a four-year term which in effect took it off the table because voters in 1967 and 1990 resoundingly rejected that and would almost certainly do the same now.

Nevertheless, Parliament’s justice and electoral committee might usefully take her musing seriously and look into fixed terms when it does its routine review of the election that has just been held.

Aah, play that again…it should have read: the election that is still going on. Election results take two weeks to finalise. And that is before any judicial recounts, which add another week or so, or electoral petitions — such as might be lodged over National party spending in Tauranga — which take months more.

We have a horse-and-cart and quill-pen approach to the vote count. Electorate returning officers must wait for “special votes” until 7pm today so the count cannot be finalised until after that.

There is a reason for some delay in the final count. Votes have to be rechecked for validity and to eliminate any double votes. The count must be correct.

But in the modern age the cut-off date for delivery to returning officers of even overseas special votes, let alone special votes cast within the country, could have been last week and at least a provisional count of special votes done by last Friday, if not earlier. That would have given a near-as-dammit result even if the double-checking really needs more time.

The select committee might usefully ponder a hurry-up. Even the much-maligned count of single-transferable-vote elections for some local authorities and district health boards last year didn’t take much longer.

The MPs might also ask about the 5 per cent who didn’t enrol — and, if necessary, make non-enrolment no longer an offence. A law that is not enforced is an ass and the electoral law above all laws ought not to be an ass.

And the MPs might take a look at MMP’s oddities.

The obvious starting point is Epsom.

Do not begrudge Rodney Hide his win there. That is testament to his phenomenal energy and never-say-die determination. So he and Heather Roy, one of Parliament’s best-performing MPs, come back to Parliament. That is Parliament’s, and our, gain.

Aah, play that again…how come there are two of them?

Because the royal commission in 1986 blundered in allowing parties which get an electorate seat to have full proportionality even if they don’t get over the 5 per cent threshold. Its chair, Sir John Wallace, said in 2002 that “waiver” had been a mistake.

He had good reason. In 1996 the Christian Coalition got 4.33 per cent of the vote and no seats. In 1999 New Zealand First got 4.26 per cent and five seats, just because Winston Peters won Tauranga.

What would be the logic in the Greens getting no seats if they fall below 5 per cent on the specials while United Future gets three seats just because Peter Dunne won Ohariu-Belmont?

Moreover, would Hide have won Epsom if Brash had not lost his nerve and hinted National voters might vote for him? Would Brash have lost his nerve if only one seat was at stake instead of two or three? Will those many National members and officials who want ACT out of Parliament (because they think it steals their votes) thank Brash for losing his nerve now that Hide has the chance to embed himself in Epsom?

And what about this other wrinkle, the Maori party’s overhang and its supporters’ split vote in Labour’s favour on the party vote — perhaps critical to Labour’s margin over National? Fast forward to the first election after next year’s census, when there will likely be eight Maori seats, and muse on the Maori party getting six or so, with a bigger overhang?

The result: restlessness about the Maori seats will grow — and grow some more when there are nine and then 10. Expect them to be abolished in the next 10 years or so. By then the Maori party will have had to convert its electorate vote to a party vote, though who knows how well it might do in general seats such the far north and the east coast when the Maori roll is added in?

After four MMP elections it is time to fix some of MMP’s oddities. Need a mandate? Labour’s and National’s combined 81 per cent share would do.