Ruapehu district councillor Elijah Pue says the advent of many more Māori constituencies around the country for the 2022 local government elections adds urgency to the debate over the Māori electoral option.
Māori voters are able to switch between the general and Māori electoral rolls once every five to six years, after each census.
The Government is considering changing the Māori electoral option to every three years, aligning with the electoral cycle, while the Electoral Commission has recommended that Māori voters should be able to change rolls at any time.
Pue says while issues of timing and frequency are important, the review should also focus on educating citizens on their choices, and he says the information campaigns need to happen now, well ahead of the 2022 local government elections.
"I think we need to have a discussion about how often we can change rolls. We need to have a wider discussion about what education looks like, about being on one or the other, because I don't think our people know enough around what comes with being on one or the other.
"With Māori wards coming online for local government, I think actually we've talked about it far too much and we need to get on with it."
In elections for councils and regional councils, those on the Māori roll will be able to vote only for a candidate in the Māori ward or constituency they live in. Those on the general roll will be able to vote only for a candidate in the general ward or constituency they live in.
In the last Māori electoral option in 2018, more than 18,000 Māori voters chose to switch rolls while more than 95 per cent of Māori voters chose to stay on the roll they were on. When the four-month option closed in August 2018, 52.4 per cent of Māori voters were on the Māori roll and 47.6 per cent were on the general roll.
Associate Professor in Māori Studies at Victoria University Maria Bargh, whose research includes Māori representation and voting in local and general elections, says the issues are much broader than whether Māori should have a choice once every five years or once every three-year electoral cycle.
"The consultation and engagement process has really narrowed the questions down to timing and frequency, and I think we need to look at the broader context and the political significance of the Māori Electoral Option as well," Bargh said.
She says choosing between the Māori and general rolls is a "very political decision" and Māori voters need to know that there are significant consequences whichever way they choose.
The Māori and general electoral rolls are lists of those enrolled to vote in both the general elections, usually held every three years to decide who will govern the country, and local government elections for district and regional councils and District Health Boards, also held every three years.
In a general election, those on the Māori roll can vote only for a candidate in the Māori electorate they live in. Those on the general roll can only vote for a candidate in the general electorate they live in. In addition, both can vote from the same list of political parties. Local government voting will be similar for councils with Māori wards.
Māori choose between the Māori roll and the general roll when they first enrol to vote. Under current electoral legislation they can only change roll type during the four-month Māori Electoral Option period every five or six years following the Census.
The Government is suggesting a potential change could be to hold the Māori Electoral Option every three years, aligning with the electoral cycle. The Electoral Commission has recommended that Māori voters should be able to change rolls at any time to better meet the needs of Māori voters.
The Electoral Commission said it continues to see large numbers of Māori voters trying to change roll types outside of the Māori Electoral Option and finding it frustrating that the law does not allow this.
In 2020, 24,000 Māori asked to change rolls - 59 per cent from the Māori to the general roll and 41 per cent from the general to the Māori roll – but weren't able to.
Their next chance to change rolls under current law is 2024. The next local government elections will be held in 2022 and the next general election is 2023. The last option was in 2018 when 18,119 chose to switch rolls.
"It makes sense to allow Māori to have a choice more frequently and once per electoral cycle is one of those good options. But, of course, for Māori there are a number of reasons they want to change and that choice can become more powerful if they could change at any time," Bargh said.
"I've done some research with Māori who are on the general electoral roll and they're very supportive of having a Māori electoral roll but there's still some confusion about the fact that more Māori on the Māori electoral roll can result in more Māori electorates – and that's where the political power really sits."
The Māori Electoral Option together with Census results helps set the number of Māori electorates: the more enrolled on the Māori roll, the more Māori electorates there could be, each represented by a member of Parliament. The number of Māori on the Māori roll also helps to determine the boundaries of Māori and general electorates.
Bargh says the review should also look at enabling Māori voters to switch between electoral rolls for general and local government elections.
"There is potentially another choice to enable Māori voters true flexibility. The political dynamics at a local government level might be such that you want to be on one specific roll there but at a general electoral level you might see other opportunities and so pick a different roll.
"I do think the next question is actually should Māori be able to have two choices in that sense, so, for example, you could be on the Māori electoral roll for the general election but you might want to choose your general roll for your local government election."
The Ministry of Justice is seeking Māori views before Friday, August 6, and is also organising focus groups around the country to hear feedback.
It says any change to the timing and frequency of the Māori Electoral Option will not change how often the electorate boundaries are reviewed or what information is used to review the electorate boundaries. The boundary review will continue to be a five-yearly process tied to the census.