A Curley election question

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
28 October, 2021

James Michael Curley, Mayor of Boston four times between 1914 and 1950, knew how to win an election. Curley’s key to victory? Make sure that people unlikely to vote for you cannot vote at all.

I hope it is not what is driving the treatment of voting rights for Kiwis abroad who could wind up disenfranchised.

A century ago, Boston was split down ethnic lines. Curley was popular with working-class Irish Catholics, to whom he delivered political perks and public spending. Wealthier English Protestants footing the bill were less impressed.

Economists Ed Glaeser and Andrei Shleifer looked back over Curley’s record. Curley’s policies were economically ruinous. But they helped to ensure Curley could be elected again and again. His opponents left town, taking their money and their votes with them.

Boston became poorer, but Curley’s support strengthened. Those more likely to vote against him were no longer on the city’s electoral rolls.

It is a sneaky way of achieving the disenfranchisement that the Jim Crow-era southern states handled through rigged voter literacy tests.

New Zealand citizens and permanent residents lose the right to vote if it has been too long since they last set foot in the country. Citizens lose the right to vote after three years, permanent residents after a year.

New Zealand closed its borders in March 2020, with little real possibility of re-entry for either citizens or residents since then.

The MIQ system was vital in keeping Covid out.

But Kiwis abroad, and especially those who often otherwise travel home, have been rightly frustrated by failures to make MIQ work.

About a million Kiwis live overseas. MIQ will ease in 2022. But Kiwis unable to make it back by 2023 will not be able to use the ballot box to express any frustration about the border.

Earlier this month, Justice Minister Kris Faafoi set a review of electoral law, with overseas voting in-scope.

But it will only report back by late 2023.

Faafoi signalled some changes might happen in time for the 2023 Election. Political donation transparency may change. And there may be changes to how Kiwis can shift between the Māori and General Electoral Roll.

But no mention of patching the overseas voting rules for 2023.

Hopefully, the pandemic’s border restrictions will not disenfranchise a million Kiwis abroad.

If the Government chooses not to fix the rules, James Michael Curley might help in explaining why.

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