General Election should be held as scheduled-Covid or not

General Election should be held as scheduled-Covid or not

Postponing Polling is not good for democracy

Grant Duncan

Grant Duncan
Auckland, August 13, 2020

If we can do our grocery shopping under lockdown, we can vote under lockdown too.

As much as supermarkets and pharmacies, the general election is an essential service and it must continue. There are ways and means to safely exercise our democratic rights during lockdown.

Democracy delayed is denied

The Prime Minister left it open at her press conference on Monday, August 13, 2020 as to whether the election (currently scheduled for September 19) might be delayed and, if so, to what future date.

While such a move is legally possible, it only defers the uncertainty about public safety at the polls. No one can predict whether one month later, for example, will be more or less safe than the scheduled date, or indeed any other reasonable date.

The dissolution of the 52nd Parliament was deferred at the last moment on Wednesday (August 12, 2020) until the following Monday. No later than seven days after dissolution, the governor-general issues the writ for the next election, including its date. This is all done on the advice of the Prime Minister, by long-established convention.

Under emergency circumstances, it may be wise for the Prime Minister to consult leaders of other parties about the election date but this is not mandatory.

Judith accuses Jacinda

National Party Leader Judith Collins has already accused the Prime Minister of a “lack of transparency“ over the date. Collins called for a late November election, or even pushing it out to next year.

It would be a shame if any of the parties used such a basic democratic procedural right for political football or electoral advantage. An opposition, for example, may prefer a later date largely to give them more time to campaign, not from concern for voters’ health.

Similarly, a government might prefer to rush an election for the same kind of reason. The loser may be the democratic system.

Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins (NZ Herald Photo)

Date commitment essential

It is not to say that there should be no delay, only that we need not regard lockdown as a barrier to voting. Set a date within the legal limit and get on with it. But do not let political advantage be a deciding factor.

As for politicians being able to campaign or hold meetings, perhaps they could learn to work online like the rest of us have had to during successive lockdowns.

The election itself belongs to the voters, not the candidates. It is run by an independent, non-political public agency, the Electoral Commission. We should not listen to political jockeys arguing over when to open the gates.

Furthermore, in 2020, political leaders should be cautious about being seen to take their cue from Donald Trump desperately calling for a delayed election, even though, in his case, the US Constitution puts the matter in the hands of Congress.

Safe Voting planned

The Electoral Commission has already planned for safe voting. It has booked in more and larger voting venues than before to allow for social distancing. Hand sanitisers will be available.

The Chief Electoral Officer can temporarily suspend voting at polling stations due to “an unforeseen or unavoidable disruption“, including an epidemic.

We should be confident in the system.

Early voting is due to begin on September 5, 2020. On past experience, about half of us will vote this way and avoid polling day altogether.

At, any election there are systems in place for people who cannot vote in person due to age, illness or disability. The demand for such services this time may well increase for those who are immuno-compromised and wary of contact with the public.

So, those services may need to be boosted for this election, regardless of its date.

Mobile booths

It is also possible to apply for postal voting. Why not have drive-in voting booths for people who wish to minimise contact with others? If we can operate drive-through Covid-19 testing facilities, we can surely adapt the concept for democracy.

The Electoral Commission is politically neutral and has had rates of positive feedback about the conduct of past elections that would be the envy of most corporates or indeed governments.

We should have confidence in the commission and the process. The show must go on!

Grant Duncan is Associate Professor in Politics at the School of People, Environment and Planning, Massey University. The above article and pictures has been published under Creative Commons Licence.

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