Graeme Edgeler: How to vote, and how to think about voting

Graeme Edgeler: How to vote, and how to think about voting

Your choice of who to vote for could make a real difference. Electoral law expert Graeme Edgeler suggests you make an informed choice, and he goes through a variety of different ways to think about your voting options.


The New Zealand general election is being held next Saturday, the 17th of October. Voting is already open. If you have already voted – thank you! Voting is an important community undertaking, and you have made New Zealand a better place by taking part. This is something I really believe, whether or not your vote was cast for the same team that I voted for. Democracy isn’t about making the right decision, it’s about making our decision. The more people vote, the more people likely that Parliament will reflect New Zealand, and the better for our shared sense of community.

For those who haven’t voted, it is not too late. Over the course of this week you will be able to vote at one of hundreds of advance voting places around New Zealand, and on Saturday, vote at an even greater number of election day voting places. On election day itself, voting places are open from 9am to 7pm. During the advance voting period, different voting places are open on different days, and at different times. Later in the week, a number of early voting places will even have early evening voting, perhaps being open to 9pm. You can look up voting places at (or free phone 0800367656) to find the place most convenient to you.

We make voting easy in New Zealand:

  • You can vote at any voting place in the country
  • You do not need photo ID, or any ID, or any proof of address, for any type of vote (advance vote, special vote, or vote on the day)
  • If you turn up at a voting place, and you’re not sure whether you are enrolled, helpful people will make sure you do what you need to enrol, and to vote
  • There’s that free phone 0800367656 if there’s something you need to ask (or you can ask me on twitter, or something)

Voting itself is reasonably simple too. At this election, you’ll have four votes, split across two different bits of paper: a voting paper for the election (yellow and orange if you are voting in a general electorate, and yellow and grey if you are voting in a Māori electorate), which has a party vote (on the left, with the yellow background), and an electorate vote (on the right), and a purplish voting paper that covers two referendums: a question about whether your support the End of Life Choice Act, and a second about whether you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill.

If it’s your first time, or you’re unsure what you’re doing, you can ask for help at a voting place, or make a plan to go along with someone else.

Perhaps less easy, is deciding how to vote.

Many people reading this will have decided already. Great. Or already voted. Even better.

But for some people, one reason they might not get around to voting is that it can be difficult to determine whom to vote for. You may have heard of “tactical voting” or “wasted votes” and not be know what you should take account of. If this is you, or if you’ve given this some thought, but still aren’t sure, I thought I would let you know some of the things I have, or might take into account.

I am not here to persuade you to vote for the party and candidate I will support on election day. If you think what I write below has that effect, please ignore it. There are enough people out there yelling at about what you should do, I hope to give you something else to think about, if the way you’ve been looking at your decision so far hasn’t resulted in a clear choice.

A vote is an expression of your values. You are given a limited set of options, and you choose the one that best aligns with them. This can mean voting for a party unlikely to make it into Parliament because of the 5% party vote threshold. But equally, it can mean voting for a party which isn’t the closest match to your preferences because what you value more is change now, and voting for a party in part because you are confident it will be in Parliament is a valid choice too, especially if you’re aware of this, and make the decision anyway.

You should know the effect of your vote on the likely make-up of Parliament, but that does not mean you are tied to a “better” tactical choice. The only thing that can determine whether a choice is “better” are the values that inform it. Someone might ask you: “why are you voting for them? You know they won’t get over 5%?”. If you can answer “I know, and I’m fine with that”, then no-one should have a complaint.

I’m not sure this is a popular view. Among the highly politically engaged, there seems to be a lot of concern about people not knowing how to cast their votes for the most effect. I think this is wrong-headed. I want others to make informed decisions, but where that information leads to is ultimately an expression of the values of the voter, and does not need to account for others’ partisan interests.

Why would someone want to vote for a party with little hope of making it into Parliament at the current election? Perhaps the things that are most important to them are things they can recognise are long term, and which might be impossible within one term, or even two or three. For some voters, recognising that the issue or issues important to them, and the currently small group of others like them simply are not in a position to elect someone to pursue that change, but that your aim is to ensure that in three, or six, or 15 years time the movement you support to respond to the issues you care about is still viable.

At this election, votes for TOP and the New Conservatives are probably in this camp. I am absolutely not ruling out that one or other makes it into Parliament. I don’t think it likely, but I also recognise that both parties speak to issues and constituencies somewhat poorly served among those currently in Parliament. Voting to ensure that one of these parties is a more viable proposition in three years and in six years is absolutely a worthwhile vote if your values prioritise issues that probably won’t be addressed in the next term or two. You can play the long game, doing your small bit to ensure that when the public realises the urgency of your position, someone exists to meet the demand.

Of course, voting to ensure that what change is possible now occurs is also a fair strategy, and given my politics, tends to be the one I adopt (because that is where my values lead me, not because it is clearly the best option for everyone).

The first thing that many people will consider when deciding how to vote are a party’s policies. If you have tried an online: “whom should I vote for?” quiz, it will almost certainly have been based on the various parties’ announced policies. These are important, especially if you are considering voting for National or Labour, which are the two parties whose policies might conceivably form the core of the next government, but they are not everything.

John Key’s National Party had a policy of not raising GST, and then did, and the current Labour government ran at the last election on policies including building 100,000 Kiwibuild homes, and won’t.

For all parties, and especially for “minor” parties, policies are perhaps more useful as a sign of what is important to them, which, if it is important to you, may be a sign of some compatibility.

But broad policy outlines aren’t really how I think about where my vote will go. I have tended to vote on a much narrower basis. The polices that the government adopts, and the laws that Parliament enacts in its next term are important, but many of them are somewhat ephemeral. Tax rates are in place for a short time, and then new ones take over, perhaps under the same government, or the next one. But there is another way of thinking about policy: what legal and cultural change could be made in the next term of Parliament that will make New Zealand better not just during the term of that Parliament, but also better 10, 20, 30 or 50 years from now?

For me, at the last election, this was the creation of a Criminal Cases Review Commission. It was a realistic idea, not agreed to by all parties, but supported by enough to have a chance of passing. It may not be perfect, but I am all but certain that it will be a major improvement over the system of investigating miscarriages of justice that preceded it. It is now law. Three of New Zealand’s parliamentary parties had policies around its creation, and while National opposed it, I think it is exceedingly unlikely that they would scrap it in the future. This is a permanent improvement in New Zealand’s criminal justice system. It is not revolutionary, but New Zealand will now be a better place in every year in the foreseeable future.

A more historic example of this type of policy is the Official Information Act. Any journalist will tell you there are problems with it in practice. But on no day is it worse than the Official Secrets Act it replaced. Yes, it could get better, and yes, things could get worse. But it is better than what preceded it, and in some form or other, it is likely to stick around. It was a change, once made, that permanently improved New Zealand.

The hope is that, over time, you get enough of these policies through that the future is better, whoever happens to be in government in 30 years’ time, and even though you may not recognise it. I once even voted for a party because it was the only one who had voted against what I thought was a particularly bad law, and I thought their courage in doing so deserved my vote in return.

I don’t actually know what that policy is, for me, this election. There are lots of little changes I can think of – the type of change that could come in via a members bill – but a biggish change, of the type that really has to be brought in by a government, I don’t currently see one. Maybe, given COVID, there isn’t one that’s actually likely to get enough votes? And, of course, it would be different for you, anyway.

I am very much a single-issue voter. It’s just that my issue – opposition to the death penalty – hasn’t really come up in any of the elections I’ve been around for. But this is an important corollary to voting for a party on the basis of a single policy that if enacted, will make New Zealand permanently better, vote against any party that has a policy that is likely to be permanent and that would make New Zealand worse. What counts as worse is of course, a value judgment in itself.

This sort of negative constraint is a very important consideration in voting. Voting against bad things is good. Without realising it, it is probably the first thing most people who are undecided use to help determine their vote. Very few undecided voters will be undecided between all 17 parties contesting the party vote. Most will have reject 13, or 14, or 15 of them, and be undecided between 2, 3 or 4.

Should I vote for National, or Labour? As a cultural conservative, should I vote for New Zealand First, New Conservative or National? As a progressive, should I vote for Labour, or the Greens, or TOP?

Deciding between these is where tactical considerations can come on. Yes, policy matters, but on policy the difference between a Labour/Greens Government where Labour has 56 MPs and the Greens 9, and one where Labour has 59 MPs and the Greens 6 is probably close to non-existent. A government where Labour has 62 MPs, and the Greens 10 would probably be very different, as the Government wouldn’t need to rely on Green votes to pass laws (such a Parliament probably wouldn’t repeal the so-called “waka jumping” legislation, for a start, with a bill currently before select committee to do just that).

You do of course, only have one vote (well you have four, but you get the idea), and the likelihood of your vote being the one that makes the difference in Parliament is vanishingly low, but, of course, lots of people thinking the same can make a difference.

But if you are this sort of undecided person, one for whom consideration of policy distinctions between the parties, has winnowed your options, just not down to one, this is an alternative way of thinking about your vote. Imagine your vote made the most difference it possibly could, as a single vote.

If you are a voter considering voting for Labour, maybe your vote could be the difference between them getting 60 MPs (not enough to govern alone) and 61 MPs (they might invite another party into government, but could pass laws without needing support from anyone else). As a potential Labour voter, would you consider this a good thing, or a bad thing? A majority Labour government could reject any Green proposals they don’t like, without having to compromise. Maybe you think that is good. Equally, a minority Labour government reliant on Green votes, and forced to compromise on some things with a party to its left, might be something you would welcome.

If you are deciding between National and ACT, would having an extra ACT MP to speak out on some issues be something you would welcome, instead of an extra National MP? Whom might that MP be?

If you are considering voting for a smaller party, such as the Green Party, your vote might be the one that ensures they cross the 5% threshold, and gets into Parliament. Alternatively, your vote might mean that a party gets 1 more MP, even if it doesn’t change the overall calculus of which parties need to work with which others to actually pass laws.

The policy consequences of a party getting one more MP might be small, but it does mean that different people will be MPs. Look at the candidates further down the list, is there someone whom you’d be very happy to be the person who meant they got into Parliament?

I know that for many people (including some who didn’t vote for her) the election of Green Party MP Mojo Mathers in 2011 was important. Having as an MP a member of the Deaf community was a milestone. Equally, there are candidates further down the lists of Labour and National who will be important representatives of their communities in Parliament, perhaps for the first time ever. In 2019, following a retirement, Paulo Garcia entered Parliament as a National Party list MP, and the first Filipino-New Zealand MP. And beyond demography, all MPs bring something to Parliament that perhaps they alone will bring. They may have the life experience to ask a specific question of officials briefing on a bill before select committee that will fix an oversight, or they may have a burning desire the advance a members bill that no other MP has the courage to advance.

And every MP – both list and electorate – gets a personal vote on conscience issues. A particular MP being elected from one list, instead of one more MP elected from another list could make the difference in a close vote.

This bit even applies to electorate voting. For lots of electorates, there’s no reason to vote for anyone other the person you think would make the best (or perhaps least worst) local MP. It could be near certain that the candidate from one party will win, or it could be the case that in general electorates, the candidates from both National and Labour are likely to make it into Parliament, one as the local MP and the other on the list (the race between Chris Bishop and Ginny Anderson in Hutt South is a good example – whichever of them wins, both will likely continue as MPs). Political parties like having electorate MPs as it gives them a good platform in the community, and MPs like being electorate MPs, for numerous reasons, not least that it tends to give them greater longevity in politics, but unless you are a strong partisan, this needn’t concern you..

For some seats – such as the Māori electorates, in which a Māori Party candidate may have a chance of being elected – and in seats like Epsom, which might allow ACT to get list MPs, there can be tactical considerations in play. There is absolutely no requirement for you to take account of these tactical consequences, and if you reject them, despite knowing what they mean, there can be no real criticism of you. The answer: “I voted for Alex because I thought they’d be the best local MP!” should deflect all criticism.

Of course, if you know tactical considerations exist, you can take them into account if they are consistent with your values: one general seat where tactical considerations are in play this election is Auckland Central. A vote for Green Party candidate Chlöe Swarbrick might mean a sub-5% Green Party remains in Parliament, a vote for Labour Candidate Helen White could help ensure a majority Labour Government, if it means the Greens are out, and a vote for National Candidate Emma Mellow might also mean a more liberal National Party caucus (Swarbrick and White are likely high enough on their party lists to make it into Parliament anyway, but Mellow is far enough down the list that she is unlikely to become a list MP, so if she gets in the make-up of National’s caucus changes, and a National candidate in another electorate who might have been saved by the list after losing their electorate will miss out on returning). Mellow being in Parliament, instead of, perhaps, an older more conservative MP would mean a slightly different National Caucus, and could make a difference to both the future direction of the National Party, and have an effect on conscience issues (I don’t know whether Mellow’s been asked, but there is likely to be a vote in the next Parliament on the creation of abortion clinic safe-zones, something her predecessor National MP Nikki Kaye supported).

None of this is on you, however. Your vote is yours, and especially if you cast it in an informed way, the political consequences are not a matter you need to concern yourself. Unless, of course, they help you cast your vote.

You can vote for whatever reason you like – you can decide between competing sets of policies, or based on a single policy; you can decide between competing sets of candidates, or between the few candidates your vote might realistically affect. You can vote on competence, or you can try to be strategic, or tactical.

And you can do all of this until 7:00pm Saturday 17 October (or a little after if you were already in queue to vote at 7:00pm and hadn’t had the chance!).



Graeme Edgeler is a Wellington barrister, with a professional interest in constitutional and electoral law

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.