Absurdity of law must be changed

16:00, Nov 05 2014

An Electoral Commission statement on Monday normally might have been paid scant heed by news media.

It said the commission had referred 26 incidents to police in response to complaints about social media content on election day. Twenty-four incidents involved people publishing or distributing statements considered likely to influence voters on election day, in breach of the law.

Seven of these involved the publication of material indicating how people had voted and/or statements likely to influence voters. All Black Israel Dagg, former All Black Jonah Lomu and champion rower Eric Murray were named by the commission. This made the statement a headline-grabber. The law prohibits all active campaigning on polling day and requires the removal of campaign materials from public view by midnight the day before polling day.

Andrew Geddis, an Otago University law professor and author of Electoral Law in New Zealand: Practice and Policy, is among those who question the treatment of election day as special when almost a quarter of the votes this year were cast before polling day.

Even if we want to maintain a peaceful, campaign-free polling day, what harm can be done by people who air their views to their followers on Twitter, Facebook and similar social media? Which values or principles are put at risk by letting the tweeters keep tweeting? And is it worth using the law - and the threat of a conviction and $20,000 fine - to try to muzzle them?

The Justice and Electoral Committee has begun its inquiry into the general election, as it does after each election, taking a general look at electoral legislation and processes in the light of how the election was conducted. The committee will be remiss if it does not include the election-day publicity blackout in its deliberations. Lomu, Dagg and Murray could have posted their thoughts up until midnight before election day and been within the law, even if their followers did not read them until election day.

The absurdity - and the need to be rid of it - is plain.

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