Two news stories stood out this week. As early voting opened in some US states, images of voters queuing all day to vote were greeted as signs of enthusiasm in America but confusion outside, while early voting in New Zealand was marked by the delightful ‘scent of democracy’ – the pleasantly lemon-scented hand sanitiser available for voters.
In the UK we don’t have early voting, with all in-person voting happening on a single Thursday. Even though polling stations in the UK are open from 7am to 10pm, it can still be hard for some people to get to the polls between work and family commitments. If you are getting your kids to school in the morning, working two jobs and caring for an elderly relative in the evening it can be hard to get to a polling station even if it is nearby.
How and when you can vote is itself a political issue. If you are comfortably retired or working a 9-5 job it is easy to pop to the polls on election day. If you are struggling to juggle multiple jobs, childcare or shift work then the more ways to vote the better.
Early voting doesn’t work the same everywhere and different places have very different attitudes towards it. Take the US state of Georgia and New Zealand. The two countries are going into very different elections but both places, on paper at least, offer voters the same chance to cast their ballot early.
But that is where the similarities end. Georgia and New Zealand go about organising their elections very differently – in the US the First Past the Post winner-takes-all mentality is given free rein, while in New Zealand power is distributed, so no party can bend the rules to their advantage.
Long waits to vote in Georgia
In Georgia, elections are overseen by the elected Secretary of State, currently a Republican. In fact, Georgia’s current Governor served as Georgia’s Secretary of State while he ran for Governor, meaning he effectively oversaw his own election.
The rules for elections are set by Georgia’s state legislature, the General Assembly, whose powers include the ability to draw Georgia’s electoral maps. Effectively the party that wins a majority gets to decide on the boundaries under which they’re elected, moving voters between constituencies to produce a result to their favour. While formally this happens every 10 years to coincide with the census, it can also happen during each two-year term of office. In 2015, Republican legislators changed district lines for House Districts 105 and 111 to protect two Republican representatives who had barely won re-election the year before – to ensure they got more votes at the next election.
As a result, the seats in Georgia are designed in such a way that it simply isn’t worth parties fighting over them, with around 43% of seats in the upcoming elections going uncontested with the incumbent party facing no opposition at all. At the last election, just 31 of the 180 state House districts featured both Republican and Democratic candidates.
Georgia is an example of winner-takes-all to its extreme. First Past the Post produces an assembly that doesn’t represent the spread of political opinion in the state, winners can redraw the boundaries to ensure they win again. They can also set voting rules that remove people likely to vote for their opponents and have them implemented by an elected member of their party.
Some have argued that the party in charge knows that the people who use early voting tend to vote for their opponents, so don’t provide enough early voting locations.
Distributing power in New Zealand
New Zealand, however, is different. It has used the proportional Mixed Member Proportional system (MMP) to elect its governments since 1996, which means that no party can gain a disproportional advantage and change the rules in their favour. An independent electoral commission organises their elections and ensures the voting rolls are up to date. They also support the work of the Representation Commission who reviews the electoral boundaries after every census and sets the new boundaries to be used in the following two general elections.
While in the UK, the government can threaten to scrap the Electoral Commission and has the power to do it, New Zealand’s system of proportional representation entrenches consensus and cooperation in their parliament. The New Zealand Labour Party would need the support of representatives of at least half the population to change the rules, while the Conservatives have the power to change anything they like on just 43% of the vote.
The best way of protecting our democracy is to only give as much power to parties as their popular support warrants. In the UK, we should be moving as far from Georgia’s winner-takes-all model as we can.