What if the coronavirus pandemic delayed an election and no one cared?
That’s pretty much what’s happening in New Zealand, where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appears to be cruising toward victory in an election this Saturday after rival politicians sought postponement from the original Sept. 19 date. At a time when America is tearing itself apart over the crises of COVID-19 and a president who’s refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power after earlier calling to set back the vote itself, the spectacle of a nation tackling the same problems with calm consensus seems extraordinary.
New Zealand certainly isn’t immune to Trump-style populism. Winston Peters, Ardern’s deputy prime minister, has been railing against migration from Asia under the banner of the New Zealand First party for decades, all while occupying a string of high offices as one of the most significant politicians of his generation.
Part of it is probably down to the politics of the situation. Thanks to a robust response to the pandemic, life for New Zealand’s 4.9 million people is returning to a semblance of normality. As a result, having run close to the opposition for most of her term in office, Ardern now has a commanding poll lead which may put her on track to govern without a coalition partner. That’s an unheard-of result since the country switched to a form of proportional representation in the 1990s. Her display of magnanimity to the opposition in agreeing to the delay doesn’t appear to have seriously damaged her position. Indeed, the minor flare-up of COVID-19 cases that prompted it has now been more or less stamped out, a decent achievement for her to take to the ballot box.
The level-headedness with which elections are handled can’t be explained away by the idea that New Zealand is a “young democracy.” It’s been holding elections since the 1850s, the indigenous Maori have had the vote since 1867, and women won full rights in 1893, decades before most other countries. In that sense, the real developing democracy is the U.S. After a brief thaw during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, it only started granting equal suffrage to all adult citizens when the 1965 Voting Rights Act overturned the Jim Crow laws that Southern states had used to keep African-Americans away from the polls.
The history of racist vote-suppression combined with America’s deeply decentralized system best explains why the right to vote is now being treated as a political bloodsport, rather than as a nonpartisan bedrock of democracy.
In common with most other English-speaking democracies, the official overseers of the ballot process in New Zealand are not elected local government officials but an appointed national commission. That lack of direct democratic accountability is, paradoxically, a good thing. Unlike party-aligned elected administrators, the senior bureaucrats on the Electoral Commission’s board have no particular stake in which side is advantaged at the ballot box and owe their greatest loyalty to their professional reputations. As a result, there’s no sign of the political conflicts of interest that so often mar the management of U.S. polls.
You can see the difference in electoral boundary reviews. In the U.S., they’ve been used by state legislators to gerrymander districts since the 19th century, resulting in absurdities like the situation in North Carolina, where Republicans hold 10 of 13 congressional districts despite winning barely more than half the vote at the 2018 midterm elections.
In other English-speaking democracies, such decisions are so uncontroversial that they barely enter the public consciousness. In Australia, boundary changes by the national elections commission before last year’s general poll notionally robbed the government of its majority before the first ballot was cast, but there was never any suggestion that Prime Minister Scott Morrison would try to overturn the decision.
A barrier to such an agency in the U.S. is that the Constitution firmly vests the management of elections in the hands of the states, which in turn delegate much of the management of polls to more than 10,000 municipal-level jurisdictions. That’s a contrast to New Zealand, Australia, and the U.K., where the running of elections all happens at the national level.
Still, within those restrictions the U.S. electoral system has over the centuries become more and more unified. Constitutional amendments have abolished restrictions on grounds of race, gender, poll taxes and age, and established popular elections to the Senate. Laws passed by Congress have mandated the use of single-member districts in the House, guaranteed voting rights, regulated campaign finance and attempted to unify voting-machine technology.
States that have chosen to delegate the management of elections to the municipal level could equally well delegate to an independent federal agency. Holding the vote on a public holiday — or Saturdays, as happens in New Zealand and neighboring Australia — would also make it easier for people to exercise their democratic rights.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that such incremental reforms on their own will be enough without a change in attitude. Like many young things, the fuller democracy that America became accustomed to after 1965 is still fragile. Half of voters in the 2018 U.S. midterms were born before the Voting Rights Act was passed, and much of that law has been gutted by the Supreme Court since 2013.The most unique quality that English-speaking democracies other than the U.S. share is something that’s not written in any law but is nonetheless crucial: a belief across all branches of politics that the right to vote is fundamental, and nonnegotiable. A nation founded on the principle that all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights would do well to heed that lesson.
David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.