Insight: How I learned to quit worrying, and love the vote

Reporter Joel Maxwell comes in from the voting cold and enrols aged 45.
Alistair Hughes

Reporter Joel Maxwell comes in from the voting cold and enrols aged 45.

Relentless change stalked the political scene at the end of the 1980s. The baton of leadership switched from what I imagine to be, respectively, the clammy, the papery, and the meaty palms of PMs David Lange, Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore. 

All this, only for Jim Bolger to whistle past and carry the country into the 90s.

In the northern hemisphere the Soviet empire was melting away like so much Russian snow. The Berlin Wall came down.

The chief electoral officer for the Electoral Commission, Alicia Wright, in her office in Wellington.

The chief electoral officer for the Electoral Commission, Alicia Wright, in her office in Wellington.

In September 1989 I turned 18 and earned the right to enrol as a voter. I could fill out a form and join the body politic of our remote democracy. Sure there was an election in 1990, but that was forever away. In the 90s. The future: filled with more synth-pop, more hair metal and more tropical wine cooler than I could possibly drink down. I'd get around to enrolling.

Grunge came and went, Princess Di died. The Kyoto Protocol was adopted. Bill Clinton did his stuff. And on and on it went.

The Twin Towers came down.

Electoral Commission supplies in a warehouse for the upcoming general election. Including some of the 22,000 finger ...

Electoral Commission supplies in a warehouse for the upcoming general election. Including some of the 22,000 finger cones needed for counting papers.

The other day I looked in the mirror and took stock: I was grey around the muzzle, and 30 kilograms heavier than 28 years ago. I had just interviewed a good person who later – a week later – died from cancer. Come to think of it, a lot of people I interviewed these days had lives ruptured horribly by some tragedy. That is our business, and I've been doing OK.

But incredibly, some part of me has not changed since 1989. I have still not enrolled to vote. 

I am a 45-year-old electoral-roll virgin.

Mandy Bohte, national manager for enrolment and community engagement for the Electoral Commission,  in Wellington.

Mandy Bohte, national manager for enrolment and community engagement for the Electoral Commission, in Wellington.

They say a week is an eternity in politics, but if this is true, then how the hell did 28 years pass so quickly?

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I've covered politics, I've interviewed MPs, prime ministers, mayors, asked questions. All this from somebody who doesn't care enough about democracy to bother filling out a form. 

Maybe through the creative process I would make sense of my near-perverse inability to enrol – or maybe once a story was promised to my bosses, I'd have to follow through and actually do it.

Alicia Wright has a bright orange ballot box in the corner of her office. And a scuffed-up polling booth sign. In off-peak years democracy in New Zealand hangs on about 100 people in 20 regional offices. Come general election time, that blossoms to 15,000 staff. Wright oversees all of this; she is the Electoral Commission's chief electoral officer.

The commission brings together political parties and candidates, with voters, in the act of democracy. The "one, big citizen-related activity that we all participate in in our democracy", she says.

Without democracy there might be chaos, and without the commission, or something like it, there would be chaotic democracy.

"If you don't get this bit right, the whole thing kinda falls apart, doesn't it?" 

There are three main reasons why there are people like me, and Wright counts them off on her fingers.

Forefinger: Too busy.

Middle: Kinda feel like the system either isn't there for you, or it's working OK and you don't need to engage in it.

Ring: You don't have the information and you're a bit nervous and unsure about doing it. This could apply to young voters in particular.

She wonders which category I fit into. I think about it for a moment and say that I've been to busy, and then add the reason politely left off the list – that I've been too lazy.

Maybe, I say, I just thought the political system could run perfectly well on its own. Maybe, I never wanted to grow up – see my name listed in rolls, drink the Kool-Aid.

"How many young people out there don't want to be adults?" Wright ponders.  "Maybe don't think of themselves as adults?"

The genial, purposeful Wright isn't here to judge. I've been breaking the law all this time by not enrolling, but she is more focused on the good things I've missed.

Wright likes the way New Zealand runs its democracy.

It's pragmatic, simple, spits out the democratic chaff. It's part of our way of doing things. One roll, one House in parliament, first independent nation to allow women's votes, 18-year-old threshold. Even MMP with its party vote amplifies people's choice.

"The roll itself is kind of a magical thing, if you think about it ... its fundamental purpose is to say, 'here is the population, 18 and over, who can vote'."

Wright's eyes light up when she talks about that moment when voters take their nibble from the cake.

People who enrol by August 23 will get an easy vote card. There are two numbers at the bottom of your form, she says, that are the co-ordinates to your voting identity.

"The page and the line number of where you are on the roll." They'll cross you off and hand you your voting form.

In the spirit of her job, Wright says most people like me still think of ourselves as voters, but just haven't got around to voting.

I've still complained like a voter at least.

On the day that I walk into the Electoral Commission it says that 60,000 people are off the election radar. Those people are what Mandy Bohte​ says are GNAs – "gone, no address".  They need to catch up with the commission to rejoin civic society.

I was ushered into Bohte's office for a moment of historic joining myself.  Bohte, national manager for enrolment and community engagement, is "tasked with basically looking after the electoral roll". Today she has taken time from looking after the country, to look after one non-enrolled person. I've gone straight to the top. 

Every person has something important to them, she says. "Unless they're taking part then they don't have the opportunity to have a voice, and have somebody represent them and their views."

I'm a little nervous. It might have been the brisk walk through Manners St in Wellington, jacketed up against the rain, followed by the immediate switch to air-con, but as I speak to Bohte, and she explains the form, a single drop of sweat pops out on my forehead.

This ain't the gym, I don't normally sweat through the forehead. Can she see it? Should I casually wipe it away?

But the enrolment form is simple, Your name, your title, your residential address, date of birth, and occupation. I have all of those things.  The only thing that breaks up this slick operation is when I have to make the choice between general roll and Maori roll. 

The law dictates you can only change between Maori and general roll once every five years after the census – the next opportunity will be in 2018.

"You do need to think carefully about it, but if you're not sure talk to your family, talk to your whanau and make that decision with advice from them as well," says Bohte.

(It turns out I won't be able to vote in my iwi area in the Far North: home of the entertaining fight between the deputy leader of a major party and the well-known guy who has floated the idea of executing meth importers. Instead I have to go with my residential area at the other end of Te Ika-a-Maui.)

It's taken 28 years to get here, so I just sign on the Maori roll side of the form. The timer on my phone hits three minutes exactly.

"Done and dusted," Bohte says.

I've enrolled before August 23, which means I'll be in the printed roll and I'll get an info pack, and an easy-vote card sent to me in the first orange-man letter of my life.

I will vote this election.

I am lazy. I have had the enthusiasm, for political participation, of a toothbrush. I loved democracy but neglected it. 

Now, I do feel better for having finally done something that is for the good of our society, but I think to myself sometimes that even if I had been a better citizen and enrolled back in 1989, how could my own life have conceivably been any better? 

That, maybe more than anything, is the truth. What was ever in it for me personally? 

Mandy Bohte says that every person has something important to them. I suddenly know, with a slightest shiver of disquiet, who that is.


People can enrol, check and update their details at, pick up an enrolment form at a PostShop, or request a form by calling 0800 36 76 56 or text their name and address to 3676.

The last day to enrol for the election is September 22. Election day is September 23.


Voting starts in New Zealand on September 11 when advance voting opens and goes through until election day on September 23.

There will be about 480 advance voting places and 2400 election day voting places around the country.

Locations of voting places will be available on August 30.


The latest Electoral Commission numbers show enrolments to the end of July at:

18-24 year olds, 63.59 per cent.

25-29 year olds, 71.84 per cent

30-43 year olds, 81.48 per cent

35-39 year olds, 90.26 per cent

40-44 year olds, 92.44 per cent

45-49 year olds, 93.98 per cent

50-54 year olds, 95.16 per cent

The age groups from 55-plus are all in the 96 per cents.


If democracy is the big picture, then the Electoral Commission deals with all the little things needed for a general election. This means it expects to use:

22,000 finger cones for issuing and counting voting papers

300,000 rubber bands

20,000 rulers

7000 pens

18,000 cardboard voting screens

14,500 voting place signs

14,000 ballot boxes

7600 cardboard tables

5400 stacker chairs

After the election the pens are donated to schools and community organisations; cardboard that can't be reused is recycled. The rest is put back in storage for the next election.


In the last general election, about 77 per cent of enrolled people actually voted. This was 2,410,857 people.

People aged 24 had the lowest turnout, with 37.27 per cent not casting a vote.

The age group with the highest voting rate was the 65 to 69 year olds, at 88.06 per cent. Only 11.94 per cent of this group of Boomers didn't bother voting.










 - Stuff


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