Far North mayoral hopeful Jay Hepi was forced to enrol to vote three times and says the obstacles he faced are a symptom of a system biased against encouraging Māori voters.
Hepi says his campaign team has encouraged 2000 new voters to sign up for this year's local body elections but says the system is designed to thwart Māori wanting to be involved.
The Electoral Commission has now contacted Hepi to apologise for delays in registering his vote - a step he had to take before his nomination as a mayoral candidate was accepted.
It rejected claims there were delays registering other voters, which has the potential impact of shutting people out of the postal voting process - which ends August 16 - and forcing their votes to be cast at one of three council offices across a sprawling district.
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It's an issue which again strikes at Māori voters, says Hepi, with many financially pressed and struggling to make lengthy distances to Kaikohe, Kaitāia or Kerikeri to cast their votes.
Hepi is standing against a broad field of mayoral candidates, including incumbent John Carter who is looking for a third term. He is a former gang leader who cites Bishop Brian Tamaki's Man Up programme as turning his life around.
The strategy for Hepi's campaign involves energising previously unregistered voters, with volunteers from Man Up encouraging people to cast their votes. It aims to overcome obstacles which are said to be behind a perceived low Māori voter turnout.
"I think it's a system that has been put in place purposely for Māori to fail in terms of trying to vote."
Hepi said a lack of belief in a system which appeared to do little for Māori, through to a lack of representation and even the economic burden of travelling from rural areas to vote were part of the issue.
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Hepi said he first registered to vote on July 18 at the Far North District Council office in Kaikohe, where he lives, and was told it would be processed by the end of the next day. It was the first time he had ever done so.
When he went to file his nomination papers as a candidate, he was told he couldn't because he wasn't registered to vote.
Hepi then filled in another registration form and had a campaign worker drive to Whangārei to lodge it with the Electoral Commission. After waiting a week, he said he was told it had been received but not processed.
Concerned about not yet being registered as a mayoral candidate, Hepi registered again on Monday and provided this journalist with the privacy waiver to allow his status as a voter to be tracked.
The intervention led to the Electoral Commission calling Hepi personally.
Its manager of enrolment and community engagement, Mandy Bohte, said: "There was a delay in processing the form and we apologise to Mr Hepi for this."
She said more than 155,000 enrolments and updates had been processed since July including about 6600 in Northland.
Bohte said Hepi's campaign had delivered 528 enrolment forms to its Whangārei office, of which 473 were processed. The other 55 were not filled out correctly so were returned to ask they be changed to allow registration.
She said enrolments submitted before August 16 would qualify for postal voting.
Former MP Hone Harawira, who employs Hepi to help run TaiTokerau Rugby League, said connecting with unregistered voters was the key to the campaign and the cut-off date of August 16 was a major factor.
Those looking to vote after that had to do so at council offices in Kaikohe, Kaitāia and Kerikeri - a barrier to those without much money who faced driving an hour or more to the ballot box.
Harawira said the council did not represent the Far North demographic where 45 per cent of people were Māori.
He said Māori looked at the council - led by Carter who infamously went on talkback anonymously as "Hone" in the 1990s - "and they see white man, white man, white woman, white man".
Harawira said he believed the unequal distribution of amenities and development across the district reflected the lack of diversity on the council.
He said it had been reflected in his own engagement with the council in attempting to get sign-off on projects in which he was involved. Also, he said the experience of many Māori with the council was one of being pursued for rates debts on hapū and iwi land.
"Is our council racist? Hell yes. How long has it been racist? Since the day it started. That's one reason I'm supporting Jay Hepi."
Victoria University of Wellington's Dr Maria Bargh - who has studied Māori voting in local body elections - said there were historic and institutional reasons for Māori disengaging from the electoral process.
"When there are people who want to stand as candidates and get thwarted for minor reasons, their trust in the process and the electoral system is dented."
She said relationships between Māori and the council could create historic divides, which relied on leadership by the council to build connections and improve democracy through greater participation.
Bargh said the Electoral Commission needed to do more to encourage Māori voters, including incorporating marae as places to vote and introducing better ways to encourage people to register.
Carter, who used to call former Cabinet colleague John Bank's talkback show as "Hone", said the Far North council had a Māori protocol group which built relationships with hapū and iwi, although with a focus on managing rating debt.
He said there were no particular steps the council took to encourage Māori voters - "nothing more than we do for all voters".
Carter said he did not believe the low number of Māori as elected councillors, compared with the population weighting, was an issue. "Most of us who live in the area have a good awareness of the issues."
He said he didn't believe his "Hone" stunts affected the relationship. "That's well past. We all have our ups and downs."