New Zealand Law Society - Voting in a superdiverse society

Voting in a superdiverse society

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New Zealand is among the world’s most “superdiverse” societies – and that poses both challenges and opportunities for our public policy makers.

Superdiversity is a reasonably new social science term, referring to an area with a very high proportion of immigrants and people of different ethnicities.

As high-profile lawyer Mai Chen explains, New Zealand is already a superdiverse society, and that trend is set to accelerate.

“Nobody does superdiversity like us. Already more than half the population of Auckland is of Māori, Asian or Pasifika origin. Statistics New Zealand data shows that by 2038, 51% of the total New Zealand population will be Māori, Asian or Pasifika,” she says.

Ms Chen is Chair of the Superdiversity Centre for Law, Policy and Business, which is analysing the implications of superdiversity for New Zealand. One of the many challenges the centre is examining is how to improve voting rates among ethnic minorities.

The Centre has been awarded a Law Foundation grant to study how our electoral law and practice enables eligible voters with limited English to exercise their democratic rights. The study will also compare New Zealand’s experience with comparable superdiverse cities and societies, to identify potential improvements.

“Most new New Zealanders don’t vote much – the statistics are very poor, they rank alongside beneficiaries, solo mothers and unemployed people in voter participation,” Ms Chen says.

“We need these minorities, who will become a majority, to exercise their democratic rights. We need electoral laws to accommodate that.”

Unlike many other jurisdictions, New Zealand has never formally adopted a literacy or language test for voting.

New Zealand first adopted specific measures aimed at eligible voters who were blind, illiterate or didn’t speak English in the 1956 Electoral Act, and those measures have been carried forward without significant change to the present day.

Ms Chen says that superdiverse states must strike a balance between ensuring language difficulties do not prevent a person from voting and respecting the right to vote secretly in fair and free elections.

“New Zealand’s approach is to make electoral information available in over 20 languages both before and during an election, to make interpreters available on an ad-hoc basis, and to permit people to be assisted in the booths by others.

“Concerns about whether these arrangements adequately protect the right to a secret ballot have been raised by the Justice and Electoral Committee as part of its triennial review of the conduct of elections.

“It is already clear that there is room for improvement. Many of the provisions dealing with non-English speaking voters seem open to abuse. That this is not reported as happening very often is probably due more to a strong culture of free and fair elections rather than because the provisions themselves are robust or fit for purpose.

“There is statutory provision allowing the nomination of a person to go into the polling booth to assist, but you can see the opportunities for corruption, especially in closely fought elections,” she says.

The study will compare New Zealand’s experience with superdiverse cities and societies overseas, to see what lessons can be applied here. Superdiverse cities include Sydney, Melbourne, Vancouver, London and New York.

Research findings will be published in October.

Support for minorities

Throughout its existence the Law Foundation has supported projects that seek to improve understanding and access to the law for minority and disadvantaged social groups. These include:

  • Developing a more responsive legal system for people with intellectual disability in New Zealand, An Otago-based research project highlighting problems and proposing solutions in this area;
  • Know Your Rights, a 13-part television series providing legal information and advice for immigrant groups;
  • a legal rights DVD for the deaf and hearing-impaired, distributed by the Police and organisations working for the hearing-impaired;
  • a training guide for case workers from the Shakti Community Council, a group that assists ethnic women dealing with domestic violence; and
  • Youth and the Law, a comprehensive guide to the law relating to young people.

More information on these projects and publications is available on the New Zealand Law Foundation website,

Lynda Hagen is the Executive Director of the New Zealand Law Foundation.

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