Including Migrant Votes Is Good for Democracy

April 23rd, 2014

Paul-Spoonley-200x130By Paul Spoonley, Massey University

Robert Peden, the chief executive of New Zealand’s Electoral Commission, made a plea [in the New Zealand Herald] for voter participation as fundamental to a healthy democracy. Of course, he is right, but the decline in voter turnout reflects a number of factors. One is whether new arrivals to New Zealand are engaged in the political process.

The 2013 Census confirmed the ever-growing significance of immigrants to New Zealand (a quarter of the population) and especially to Auckland (40%). But the origin of those immigrants is also changing. Recently, and for the first time, the largest groups of arrivals are not from the UK but are from either China or India. And the Census also confirmed the range of immigrant and ethnic groups in New Zealand – there are 230. Overall, nearly 12% of the country’s population is Asian while 23% of Aucklanders identify with an Asian ethnicity.

How inclusive and responsive is our political system to these communities? Do they feel encouraged to take part in elections?

The answers are complex but there are some clues. The New Zealand General Social Survey asked whether respondents voted in the 2011 general election.

For New Zealand European/Pakeha, the non-vote was nearly 17%, for Maori it was nearly 27%, for Pasifika it was close to 18% and just over 35% of Asians didn’t vote.

Those who had been in New Zealand fewer than five years had a non-vote of 60% but this dropped to 14% for long-term migrants. The Electoral Commission’s own survey shows that Asians were the second only to youth in non-participation.

Another source of information is Longitudinal Immigrant Survey: NZ, which shows that voter enrolments among Indians and South Koreans is high (91% and 87% respectively), and compares well with British migrants (93%). Chinese are lower at 77%. But casting a vote is another matter with little over half of Chinese and Koreans voting, while two-thirds of Indians vote. Only 55% of British immigrants bothered voting.

Citizenship not required

All of this suggests we need to make sure immigrants, particularly recent arrivals, are encouraged to participate. This is underlined by the fact that New Zealand is virtually alone in allowing those who have been granted permanent residency the right to vote, as long as certain voter eligibility requirements have been met. Citizenship is not required.

The responsibility lies with a number of organizations and communities. The Electoral Commission has an important role to play in encouraging immigrants to vote. It has, in the past, run workshops for Kiwi Asians and provided information in a range of languages. But given the above statistics, there is obviously more to be done.

Are political parties doing their bit? Most are aware that the immigrant and minority ethnic vote is – and will – make a difference, especially in Auckland. Candidate selections, the use of ethnic/immigrant media and participating in community events all indicate that political parties are taking a much greater interest in these communities. Whether it is adequate is another matter.

And what about the media as a forum for discussing political matters that are of interest to these communities – and in a way that engages them? One of the difficulties here is that there has been a proliferation of media that serve the interests of immigrants, so that there has been a fragmentation between mainstream and sidestream (immigrant/ethnic) media. Questions need to be asked about what the effect has been on voter interest and participation. My view is that some media do a great job but others do little to provide a forum, or they sometimes misrepresent issues and political viewpoints.

What about the communities themselves? They, too, have a responsibility to inform themselves and to become involved. There are signs that some communities are active. Manying Ip  has talked about the Taiwanese immigrants who began to mobilise in the 1996 general election and went on to organize pre-election rallies and seminars – and to seek candidacy.

Given the significance of immigrants and immigration to New Zealand, it is critical that those involved in politics help encourage their participation in the political process – as voters, as commentators and as candidates. Whatever cynicism there is about voting, it is still at the heart of the democratic process.

Paul Spoonley is pro vice-chancellor of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University and the project leader for a research program looking at the future population shape of New Zealand. This article was first published by The New Zealand Herald on April 3, 2014 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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