Marcus Roberts, senior researcher at independent think-thank Maxim Institute in Auckland New Zealand

Unlocking Democracy | How Should We Determine Our Electorate?

By Marcus Roberts June 08, 2023

We were inspired to write this paper by the Panel He Arotake Pōtitanga Motuhake – Independent Electoral Review, which the Government commissioned in May 2022 to examine our electoral system. As part of this review, the Review Panel has looked into three separate issues, all determining who is entitled to vote in Aotearoa New Zealand. (Or, to put it another way, where the boundary of our demos should be drawn.) These issues are whether the minimum voting age should be lowered to 16 years, whether we should change the rules relating to expatriates voting, and whether the laws granting some prisoners the right to vote should be changed.

To answer these three questions, this paper puts forward a general framework to determine the demos boundary problem. It examines various arguments that have been used to justify granting the vote including: the affected interest principle; the coercion principle; the dignity principle; utilitarian arguments; the nation-state argument; and the agnostic approach.

We conclude that none of these arguments by themselves are entirely satisfactory. Instead, we argue that all those affected by the laws passed by Parliament and who are a part of Aotearoa New Zealand’s political community and are competent enough to choose who will best serve their interests should have the right to vote.

We then take this general framework and use it to examine the three specific issues that the Review Panel is considering.

Minimum voting age of 16 – We argue that most of the public debate around moving the minimum voting age to 16 years is not persuasive or irrelevant. The affected interest principle is unable to determine why 16-year-olds should be granted the vote but 15 year-olds should not. An increased voter turnout can best be achieved through other means, such as compulsory voting, and there is no consistent age of majority in New Zealand laws which can determine a minimum voting age. Instead, we argue that because our decision-making abilities are still developing until at least our early 20s, 18 remains a better (albeit arbitrary) minimum voting age than 16 in order to optimise the competency of voters.

Overseas Voters – The current rule requiring New Zealand citizens to return periodically is too restrictive. A brief return to New Zealand every election cycle does not adequately capture those who are sufficiently connected to New Zealand’s political community. Our voting rules should allow any New Zealand citizen who has been enrolled to vote in New Zealand in the last nine years to vote. A similar rule for overseas New Zealand permanent residents who have been enrolled to vote within the last three years in New Zealand should also be adopted. This will ensure that all those who still have a stakeholding in our community will be able to vote despite living overseas.

Voting from Prison – We believe that all prisoners should have the right to vote irrespective of the length of their prison sentence. The vote is not a privilege which can be lost due to behaviour society deems unacceptable. It is instead a right, which should not be lost upon incarceration. Prisoners are affected by the laws passed by Parliament and are still members of the political community. The aims of criminal sentencing can be met by the loss of freedom of movement and association incidental upon incarceration, the right to vote should not be lost as well.


Unlocking Democracy

How Should We Determine Our Electorate?


This paper makes three recommendations based upon our framework for assessing the boundary problem:

  • The voting age should remain at 18.
  • All those who are enrolled to vote in New Zealand at some point within the last nine years should be able to vote no matter where they currently live.
  • All prisoners should be able to vote irrespective of their length of imprisonment.

If these recommendations were followed, then the boundaries of our demos would be set in a more principled and consistent manner. We would be more confident that those who can vote are part of our national community and affected by the lawmakers they are voting for, that they can identify their own interests and that they are capable of responsible self-government.

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Marcus Roberts, senior researcher at independent think-thank Maxim Institute in Auckland New Zealand

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