Politics professor contradicts Willie Jackson’s ‘one person, one vote’ argument


Maori Development Minister Willie Jackson said He Puapua was not government policy. Photo/NZME


Willie Jackson argues that “one person, one vote” is only one value among democratic principles, not the only one. But everyone having a vote or votes of equal weight to elect those who represent them is not only a value, it is a fundamental principle. As such, it is recognized in the Bill of Rights Act of 1990.

Of course, in local communities, where there is only one vote, we speak of one vote/one value. Under MMP, we can talk about two votes of equal value. It’s the same principle.

Examples from other countries simply illustrate that the principles of democracy are rarely applied as fully as they could or should be. Analyzed in depth, democracy is a matter of degree. Countries can be more democratic, or less, or not at all.

Of course, nobody votes for the British House of Lords; it has fairly limited powers and many would like it to be abolished.

The US Electoral College and the Senate are elected by one person to one vote in each US state. But because there is such variation in populations between states and because US elections are run under the first-past-the-post system, the result at the federal level is often undemocratic.

Because US federal election results have become increasingly perverse lately, US democracy has entered the “imperfect” category in the estimates of many people, including that of the influential weekly The Economist.

It’s hard to believe that Willie Jackson was indifferent to Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States on a minority of the popular vote, and would really want to argue that the United States is no less of a democracy.

The right of non-residential property owners to vote in local elections in New Zealand is a sensitive subject. Only one vote per property is allowed. In any local government area, all votes remain of equal value. But if a person owns several properties in the local councils, he can vote for more than one, but for different councils.

The same practice is possible if a person holds citizenship of more than one country and can often be entitled to vote in all of them. Few people oppose it.

A non-residential vote in local government is justified on the grounds that local government is funded by rates, property tax, and so the principle here is “no taxation without representation”.

Voting in legislative elections used to be based on property requirements, until the principle of equal suffrage for all was established. One can observe that non-residential voting is a throwback to that pre-democratic period, and continue to argue for their abolition of non-residential voting on these grounds.

Willie Jackson recognizes that Aotearoa has moved from a majority democracy to “a more moderate, consensual and participatory democracy”.

By most estimates of the quality of democracy, our country ranks well. “Co-governance” is now part of this process. Co-governance is also something that is neither: you can have more or less of it.

Some aspects of co-governance conflict with votes of equal value, with implications for the quality of our democracy. We do not know how far the government intends to take us in this direction, nor the details of its thinking.

What we have seen so far is ad hoc and reactive constitutional tinkering, rather than the application of consistent principles.

Perhaps after Willie Jackson presents his document to Cabinet in response to He Puapua, we will know more.

Jack Vowles, Professor of Comparative Politics
Victoria University of Wellington

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