Should voting be compulsory in New Zealand?

Headlines, Taking issue — By on October 11, 2017 3:01 pm

We asked this question of two expert academics in politics, and a postgraduate student who has been working through the Centre of Innovation and Entrepreneurship on developing a solution for getting people more engaged in politics.


I didn’t have a vote in a national election from 1997 to 2005. I wasn’t in a non-democratic state, I was in the UK and then in New Zealand, disenfranchised by the vagaries of electoral cycles and immigrant qualifying periods. On election day 2005, visiting London, I made it to the ballot box in New Zealand House with seconds to spare, narrowly avoiding making it 11 years without a vote.

That would have been 11 years a slave, according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who remarked that voters are only really free when voting, being prone to slavery the rest of the time. He also argued, famously, that individuals are rightly “forced to be free” in being constrained and guided by the general will.

Would compulsory voting make people more free or less free? The philosophical-political conundrum continues, probed recently in debates in the vein of Rousseau on “republican” freedom as non-domination, with the thought that anyone who doesn’t vote is effectively under the dominion of those who do.

In practical political terms, however, do we need to address the conundrum right now? Participation in New Zealand elections has fallen over time, which is worrying and needs action. But there are many reasons why people don’t vote and there are many types of response to be explored before coercion tops the agenda.

Don’t expect me to list the possibilities here, as if proffering alternative instant solutions (e-voting is the notorious example). It’s complicated. There are factors external to procedure too, of course, including the role of a changing media as well as what happens in politics itself. (By the time you read this, will the Ardern effect have mirrored Britain’s Corbyn effect in raising interest among young voters?)

At the 2014 election, the Electoral Commission started picking apart the problem statistically, confirming that voters aged 18-39 – the young-ish – have under-average turnout, as do Māori. But in a linked survey only four percent of eligible voters who didn’t vote offered a reason in the “can’t be bothered” categories.

More cited barriers of work, health, religion, transport or being away from home.

This suggests barriers to overcome before compulsory voting is the resort. It also suggests how compelling people to vote is likely to punish further those least free in other ways, being likely disproportionately from more marginalised groups. A vote to introduce compulsory voting would then be “mainstream” older New Zealanders telling their younger, diverse fellow citizens what to do, again.

Dr Geoff Kemp teaches politics in the School of Social Sciences


Persistent patterns of low turnout by those who are less well off, young or from diverse ethnic backgrounds worries many political scientists and commentators, who argue that participation is crucial for an effective democracy. Of course there are others who claim that nonvoters are satisfied with politics or are not sufficiently interested to care.

However, the fact remains that over time, turnout in New Zealand has steadily declined. Rueing and wooing the “missing million” is a familiar refrain. Many hoped new Labour leader Jacinda Ardern would appeal to younger voters because she was of a different generation to Bill English, social media savvy and cognisant of the issues of import to the under thirties. Ardern’s promotion also made the electoral race much closer.

This is significant because the more competitive a campaign, the more likely turnout increases since people believe their vote can influence the outcome. However, this is a serendipitous factor and one that is unlikely to reverse the downward trend evident in New Zealand. Does this mean then that compulsory voting is a viable and valuable solution?

I believe so. Compulsory voting enhances turnout significantly (it is 94 percent in Australia) ensuring that political parties of all persuasions have an incentive to appeal to as many voters as possible. In voluntary systems parties can choose to target only those voters they expect will turn out.

Second, compulsory voting supports the principle of one vote, one value – a core element of any democracy. Most Australians support it, and accept it as a reasonable obligation, not unlike stopping at a red light, or paying taxes.

Finally, scholars argue that when we have a sense of control over the political system we are more contented, and society is more stable and inclusive as a result. If the need for political control is continually thwarted, voters may become deeply alienated, which in turn may lead to more extremist political action.

In 2014 over 50 percent of voters who responded to the New Zealand Election study supported the introduction of compulsory voting here. So the time is right to bring our missing million into process and build a happier and more inclusive democracy.

Associate Professor Jennifer Curtin is co-author of the book A Bark but No Bite. Inequality and the 2014 New Zealand General Election.


A decline in voter turnout may have prompted some of us to think, “Our next door neighbour has the mandatory voting rule in place, so should we be following suit?”

I personally believe that voting should not be compulsory in this country. It goes against the core principle of democracy and that is freedom. Even though we mostly revere freedom of choice and speech, we seem to forget that this freedom also imparts the privilege to remain silent. Therefore, forcing a New Zealand citizen to vote is an infringement of their liberty.

Furthermore, a high voter turnout doesn’t necessarily correlate to a politically engaged electorate. I would rather see a smaller voter turnout of informed and engaged voters than a 100 percent voter turnout with a high number of ill-informed and disinterested people at the ballot box. So, the real question is not about making voting compulsory but about how we can make our citizens more politically engaged.

Nowadays people are sourcing information through Facebook and YouTube, and through the hundreds of news apps available in the palm of our hands, at the touch of a button. These are the ultimate tools to get people, particularly youth, engaged in news and politics.

Through an app, users can keep track of the changes in the political landscape related to the issues that they care about, as they happen. They can give their opinions on changes which can be recorded and tracked. And they can see which party’s policy and stance they agree with the most.

Though this may not be the complete solution to the lack of voting in this country, it does help with making an informed decision on who to vote for. If you can swipe on a phone, then you can swipe on policies that can shape your entire future.

Sahara Dhunnookchand is one of seven University of Auckland students who have worked with mentor Dr Jamie Newth at the Business School on developing an app to encourage younger New Zealanders to engage with politics. The VoteSmart NZ app was due to be launched in early September.


The views of our contributors are intended as the beginning of a discussion, which our readers can then respond to. Please leave your comments below or write a letter to the editor to continue the conversation.

You can also comment on “Taking Issue” topics from previous issues, including gender inequality in the world of work and New Zealand’s response to the refugee crisis. Letters to the editor are also welcome. Please email to or post to Ingenio, Communications and Marketing, Private Bag 92019, Auckland Mail Centre, Auckland 1142.

The views expressed above reflect personal opinions and are not those of the University of Auckland.



  1. Ken Edmonds says:

    Compulsory voting is nothing more than a way of forcing citizens to support a highly unattractive political class. Let’s face it, most of the people on any ballot are time wasters and there are very few really competent politicians now. Let’s go for compulsory voting but only with the addition of a “None of the Above” option on every ballot paper. That is the litmus test of any election – if “None of the Above” wins the ballot then you know it is time to chuck out the failures and find a decent list of competent candidates. With additional rules to limit the number of times a time waster can be on a ballot, and the number of repeated failures of the whole ballot before the election is cancelled until the next voting cycle is due in 3-4 years – we would see a marked improvement in the political sector literally overnight.

  2. David Reid says:

    Not only should voting be compulsory but should be for NZ Citizens solely.

  3. kerry stanaway says:

    I am on the side of those who think it an infringement of freedom to be forced to vote. Being eligible to vote in both the US (where I became a citizen 30 years ago) and in NZ (where was born 72 years ago and now live)I have to say I voted in neither country’s latest elections (In the US not for several elections). Being a travelling geologist I am often away from home and in the case of the last NZ elections travel took place at short notice. Voting in anger against being forced could make for irresponsible voting.I would make more strenuous efforts to vote if I believed the outcome would greatly change my freedom lifestyle or finances. Very few elections in history have fundamentally changed anything. Once democracy or tyranny is established there is little citizens can do about it

  4. Terry McCarthy says:

    Improving the statistics around voter turn-out will not improve decisions or government. Compulsion has the potential to lead to disruptive voting patterns as a protest against compulsion.

    In my personal view voter turn-out will improve when the privelege and benefit of democracy is communicated to all levels of society. People at all levels need to understand collectivity and that making a difference requires casting their vote with others of like mind.

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