New Zealand's great voting fraud story looks to have died - for now, anyway.

For a while there it looked like the Auckland Supercity election could end up getting decided by a judge, as the unfolding claims of fraudulent voter registrations merged with claims that the early flood of votes from South Auckland were being matched by later turnout in assumedly "pro-Banks" parts of the city.

You could see this excited narrative developing in the news coverage leading up to the last day of voting, in articles like this and this. This TV3 story even had John Bank's muttering about the mayoralty being "stolen" (without making any specific allegations against anyone in particular, you understand).

Then the actual votes got counted.

Once this happened, not even the most hysterical members of the blogosphere commetariat could put Len Brown's near-65,000 vote majority down to corruption of the voting process. What is more, the alleged mastermind of the plot to fraudulently enroll voters and then steal their votes (although "mastermind" is a bit of a stretch, given the crude and easily discovered nature of the claimed scheme), Daljit Singh, failed in his own tilt at power on the glorious "Papatoetoe subdivision of the Otara-Papatoetoe Local Board in the Manukau Ward."

Yes - that's right. Mr Singh allegedly commited forgery by falsely enroling voters out of a desire to sit on a body that "will include oversight and decisions with respect to local facilities, like swimming pools and parks, community programmes and local services such as refuse collection and graffiti control, and some regulatory responsibilities."

I guess you could try and twist this into evidence of a passionate desire to serve the local community and its people ... but no. I think we can all agree that stealing other people's right to cast their own vote is pretty much inexcusable, no matter what the political colours pinned to the alleged malefactor's chest.

So, then. Mayor Brown convincingly elected. Alleged corrupter of the voting process safely beaten at the polls. Story over.

Well, maybe not. For one thing, the fact that someone even tried to cheat the system and steal votes is bound to raise questions when Parliament's Local Government and Environment Committee reviews the 2010 elections. In particular, just how safe is the postal voting system chosen by every local authority in the country?

(Note that - the universal use of postal voting for local elections is the result of a deliberate choice by each local authority in New Zealand. Why? Well, there is the claim that elections held by postal voting help to improve turnout - although I'm not sure reality bears this theory out. Leaving the undeniable reality that elections are much cheaper to run this way ... .)

I guess we'll need to wait for the Committee's report to get a definitive answer to the question, but my guess is it will conclude postal voting is pretty safe - but not totally so. In part, that is because you can't know what happens to ballots once you mail them out to voters. Are they really filled out by the intended voter, and under what circumstances, with whose eyes watching what boxes get ticked or numbered?

Furthermore, New Zealand's pretty minimal formal requirements to change enrollment details makes it easy to engage in the kind of behaviour that Mr Singh is alleged to have carried out. The claim is that he simply transferred the enrolment of real voters from outside of his ward to addresses inside of it without their knowledge, thus getting their voting papers mailed to him rather than to them.

But the Electoral Enrolment Center's data-matching system was always going to pick up this activity, given the number of voters claimed to be residing at individual addresses. Having up to 90 voters purportedly living in just two houses was always going to raise a red flag. That's why I called the attempted fraud "crude and easily discovered".

Furthermore, should any voter query why they haven't received their voting papers, then that too will spark enquiries likely to uncover the malfeasance. And remember, voting papers in New Zealand carry individual identifiers, allowing each ballot to be matched back to the particular voter who cast it. So any fraudulently obtained voting paper can be removed from the count after the fact, further reducing the incentives to try and cheat in this way.

All of which means that, while postal voting still carries more risks than does regular polling-place-and-ballot-box voting, we're unlikely in this country to see the same problems with large-scale fraud that has bedeviled places like the UK.

But then there's always the hypotheticals. Let's say Mr Singh had been elected to the local board position he obviously so desperately craved. What then?

Well, his election could have been challenged in the District Court, through a petition for inquiry. And had evidence of large-scale voter fraud been uncovered, then his election could be declared void. But note - the allegation against Mr Singh at the moment is not that he cast any fraudulent votes, but rather that he forged the enrolment details of voters to get their votes. So it may be that, had Mr Singh won, he would have done so purely through "real" votes.

In that case, there would be no grounds to void his election. So would he have been able to sit as a member of the community board? Well, yes ... at least until any conviction at trial.

Under the Local Government Act 2002, conviction for an offence carrying a jail term of more than 2 years automatically causes a member of a local authority to lose office. Mr Singh's been charged with forgery under the Crimes Act, which carries a jail term of up to 10 years. So a conviction would represent the end of his board membership.

But here's an interesting twist. Let's say a candidate didn't forge enrolment documents, but instead walked around Otara-Papatoetoe, lifting unopened voting papers out of recycling bins or off the pavement. The candidate then
opens the envelopes, fills out each ballot in her or his own favour, and posts them back. Then the candidate gets caught.

What might she or he then be charged with? Perhaps with voting more than once, under the Local Electoral Act 2001, s.124. Or perhaps "obtain[ing] ... any voting document, other than one issued to that person under this Act ... without authority" under s.123. Or perhaps with "personation" under s.128.

But whatever the charge, the same problem arises. Each of these offences is punishable by up to 2 years imprisonment. Yet the Local Government Act 2002 only kicks out of office people convicted of offences carrying imprisonment tarrifs of 2 years of more. Meaning that an elected candidate convicted of offences against the Local Electoral Act 2001 gets to keep her or his job.

Whether that makes any sense is, perhaps, an issue the Local Government and Environment Committee might wish to take up in their review.

Comments (12)

by Graeme Edgeler on October 11, 2010
Graeme Edgeler

Have a precedent for arguing that "imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years" isn't "a term of imprisonment of 2 years or more", because I'd have said it was.

And why do you assume that a candidate who fills in false enrolments (punishable under the Electoral Act by up to 3 months' imprisonment) can be subject to other offences under the Crimes Act (like forgery - up to 10 years' imprisonment), but a candidate who steals voting papers and uses them (personation under the Local Electoral Act) wouldn't be subject to other offences under the Crimes Act (like dishonestly using a document - up to 7 years' imprisonment)?

Although thanks for pointing out that the Local Electoral Act, and election inquiries under it, don't have a corrupt practices type list, which certainly seems like an oversight.

by Dean Knight on October 11, 2010
Dean Knight
Andrew: Good to see you're back from the glamour of constitutional outrage to the minutiae of local government... You might want to check the penalties for ss 123, 124 and 128. When I looked at this the other day (and I had to pause and think about it for a while), (a) the relevant penalty is"imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years"; and (b) therefore the offences will lead to disqualification and ouster from office. Also, I'm pretty sure I'm seen empirical data from LGNZ confirming the increase in voter turnout due to postal voting. From around 30-odd% to close to 50% now.
by Graeme Edgeler on October 11, 2010
Graeme Edgeler

Also, I'm pretty sure I'm seen empirical data from LGNZ confirming the increase in voter turnout due to postal voting. From around 30-odd% to close to 50% now.

Yes Dean - but was that the increase in people voting, or an increase brought about by people taking others' voting papers from curbside recycling bins?

And this wasn't the same guy who told you that it was better not to cast all your preferences, was it :-) If everyone had stopped voting at preference 3 (as under your Limited Preferential Vote), I very much imagine Kerry Prendergast would be ahead by a few more than 40 votes.

by Andrew Geddis on October 12, 2010
Andrew Geddis


I'll take your point on "not exceeding two years" meeting the disqualification criteria of "two years or more".

But Dean - voting turnout rates for local elections are covered here. No evidence of a bump from postal voting, unless it's one of those "the decline would have been even greater without the change" situations.

by Dean Knight on October 12, 2010
Dean Knight

@Graeme: I'm not still not convinced on the merits or otherwise of ranking all candidates.  It's not an issue, I think, in single-member constitutiencies, and probably not an issue where you rank you rank your most hated last of all.  But I can tell you I only ranked people I wanted elected.  And, yes, trifecta STV is may not bring absolute precision, but sometimes one needs to a pragmatic to ensure that the public can work the system and have faith in it.

@Andrew:  Hmmm.  Noted in the figures.  I might have to do some digging elsewhere....


by Cushla McKinney on October 12, 2010
Cushla McKinney

Hi Andrew,

I agree with you about the ease with which one could 'acquire' ballot forms.  Particularly somewhere here like Dunedin, where some students may be on the electoral role but have no interst in voting.

Another problem that was highlighted in the Auckland electoral race was the 'dumping' of mail for Mangere voters.  A conspiracy theorist could probably construct a nice plot around this too (disenfrancheised voters being unlikely to contact authorities if their forms fail to arrive etc).  Regardless of whether this was laziness or malice, the disposal (or false acquisition) of ballots is only going to be discovered if people care enough to report that their papers are awol, which requires a degree of public engagement that is generally lacking in local body politics.  On the other hand, I think that postal voting is probably the easiest way to *get* people involved, so maybe it is the best of a bad set of solutions.

by Andrew Geddis on October 12, 2010
Andrew Geddis

@Cushla: "I agree with you about the ease with which one could 'acquire' ballot forms.  Particularly somewhere here like Dunedin, where some students may be on the electoral role but have no interst in voting."

I didn't notice it so much for the local body elections this year, but at the time of the referendum on smacking the street I walk along to work every morning, Castle St, was littered with unopened voting papers. Had I been so minded - and had I particularly cared about the poll result - I could have had my say many times over.

"On the other hand, I think that postal voting is probably the easiest way to *get* people involved, so maybe it is the best of a bad set of solutions."

Well - internet voting? It's under consideration!

by Chris de Lisle on October 13, 2010
Chris de Lisle

"Well - internet voting? It's under consideration!"

Might be good. It might engage exactly the group for which postal voting is most troublesome- the 18-25 yo cohort, who often move annually, and whose postal address is often in a different city from the one they reside in.

Franklin claims that getting this group to vote is critical, because, if they get into the habit of not voting, that habit is likely to stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Then again, internet voting is going to shut out other groups; the technophobic, the elderly, people who can't afford internet... so it's not perfect either.

by Greg Dawson on October 13, 2010
Greg Dawson

A combination of internet voting as a default with opt-in postal voting would seem to be the most effective way of covering all your bases.

The setup would be pretty straightforward - a once off mail-out costing about as much as an election, where if you don't reply then you're assumed to be selecting internet voting.  Then ongoing ability to change preference via electoral offices/websites.

I'm sure the initial identification can be handled in much the same way as the logins for the IRD website, which haven't caused any big problems that I'm aware of.

by Dean Knight on October 14, 2010
Dean Knight

Okay.  An example of the stats about voter turnout since posting voting was made compulsory in 1989 is here, with their commentary seeming to reflect what I s$file/Electionstats2004.pdf

It's something that comes up at the regular LG research symposium, scheduled for Dec this year - so I will keep an eye out for more comprehensive research and analysis.


by Andrew Geddis on October 17, 2010
Andrew Geddis


Point taken. But the problem is that postal voting was introduced in 1989 alongside a reorganisation of local government - so you don't know how much of the bump in voter participation was because of the new voting system and how much was because of the new bodies that were being elected.

Look, for instance, at the supercity election - turnout in Auckland has increased (although admittedly not by as much as in 1989) because of the novel nature of the event.

by Bruce Thorpe on October 17, 2010
Bruce Thorpe

Postal voting completely contradicts the principle of a secret ballot.

The greatest social pressure to behave opposite to one's inner beliefs is family household.

I live in a rural constituency and note with interest that the more professional candidates tend to cultivate the rural housewives for I am sure, the very good reason that the mother and wife is the person who completes forms and gets them posted in time.

I have been a scrutineer and it was very noticeable that batches of votes would be identical including the same coloured ink.

However the biggest problem I have is with the widespread voting system of multiple equal votes for more than one councillor. This inability to rank one's votes must cause outcomes differing greatly from the voters' wishes.

The same system means in my district (Far North) that the three wards have different allocations of voters, and therefore different numbers of votes to the individual voter. This means a ticket with 2500 supporters in one ward could elect a maximum four councillors, whereas a similar  2500 supporters could only elect a maximum of two. Not very democratic, eh?


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