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New Zealand teaches us a lesson on pandemic democracy

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New Zealand is certainly not immune to Trump-style populism. Winston Peters, Deputy Prime Minister of Ardern, has been speaking out against migration from Asia under the New Zealand Party banner for decades, while holding a string of senior positions as one of the most important politicians in his generation.

This is probably partly due to the politics of the situation. Thanks to a robust response to the pandemic, the lives of New Zealanders 4.9 million people are returning to a semblance of normalcy. As a result, having run alongside the opposition for most of her tenure, Ardern now has a dominant poll leader who could put her on track to rule without a coalition partner. This is an incredible result since the country switched to a form of proportional representation in the 1990s. Its display of magnanimity towards the opposition by accepting the delay does not appear to have seriously damaged its position. Indeed, the minor surge in Covid-19 cases that prompted her has now been more or less eradicated, a decent achievement for her to bring to the polls.

The weight with which elections are administered cannot be explained by the idea that New Zealand is a young democracy: it has held elections since the 1850s, indigenous Maori have been eligible to vote since 1867, and women have won all their rights in 1893, decades before most In this sense, the real developing democracy is the United States, after a brief thaw during the post-Civil War reconstruction period, they only began to grant a equal suffrage to all adult citizens only when the 1965 Voting Rights Act overturned the Jim Crow laws that the southern states had used. to keep African Americans away from the polls.

The history of the racist repression of votes combined with the deeply decentralized system of the United States best explains why the right to vote is now treated as political coolness, rather than as a non-partisan foundation of democracy.

Like most other English-speaking democracies, the official overseers of the voting process in New Zealand are not elected representatives of local government, but an appointed national commission. This lack of direct democratic accountability is, paradoxically, a good thing. Unlike elected party-aligned administrators, senior election commission council officials have no vested interest in which side has an advantage at the polls and owe their greatest loyalty to their professional reputation. As a result, there is no sign of the political conflicts of interest that so often plague the management of US polls.

You can see the difference in the electoral boundary reviews. In the United States, they have been used by state lawmakers for gerrymanderdistricts since the 19th century, leading to nonsense like the situation in North Carolina, where Republicans hold 10 of 13 congressional districts while they have won just over half of the vote in the 2018 midterm elections.

In other English-speaking democracies, such decisions are so uncontroversial that they barely enter the public consciousness. In Australia, border changes by the National Election Commission ahead of last year’s general poll theoretically deprived the majority government before the first ballot, but there was never any question of Prime Minister Scott Morrison trying to overturn the decision.

An obstacle to such an agency in the United States. is that the Constitution firmly entrusts the management of elections to the states, which in turn delegate much of the management of the ballot boxes to more than 10,000 municipal jurisdictions. This is in contrast to New Zealand, Australia and the UK, where elections are held nationally.

Yet within the framework of these restrictions, the American electoral system has over the centuries become more and more unified. The constitutional amendments abolished restrictions based on race, gender, electoral taxes and age, and introduced popular elections to the Senate. Laws passed by Congress required the use of single-member constituencies in the House, guaranteed voting rights, regulated campaign finance, and attempted to unify voting machine technology.

States that have chosen to delegate election management to the municipal level might as well delegate to an independent federal agency. Holding the vote on a public holiday or on Saturdays, as happens in New Zealand and neighboring Australia, would also make it easier for citizens to exercise their democratic rights.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that such gradual reforms will suffice on their own without a change in attitude. Like many young people, the fuller democracy to which America became accustomed after 1965 is still fragile. Half of the voters in the United States in mid-term in 2018 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 shared by English-speaking democracies other than the United States is something that is not written into any law, but it is nonetheless crucial: the belief in all branches of politics that the right to vote is fundamental and non-negotiable. A nation founded on the principle that all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights would do well to heed this lesson.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer businesses. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

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