National blocks move that would allow Māori voters to switch electoral rolls more freely

National has blocked a move that will allow Māori to more frequently switch between electoral rolls over fears of "manipulation", despite the Electoral Commission saying it would be a good idea.

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Nick Smith argued moving between rolls could open the door to voter manipution, a stance slammed by Labour MPs.

Currently, Māori are only able to switch between the general and Māori roll every five years at the Census. The number of Māori and general electorates is then set using results from the census and the subsequent Māori Electoral Option which allows people to choose which roll they want to be on.

The Electoral Commission recommended that be changed at the last election in 2017. It told the Justice Select Committee Māori should be able to change rolls once every three years.

Government members of the select committee supported the changes, but National Party members did not. 

Justice Minister Andrew Little said: “I certainly think there should be a more flexible arrangement that allows them to make the choice to change.”

However, he said there was more work to be done to ensure allowing the switching wouldn't impact the integrity of the electoral system.

National spokesperson on electoral reform Nick Smith said allowing for frequent switching would open up the possibility of strategic voting.

"In our view, it would be open to manipulation," he said.

“I do think you would have political parties where you have key seats encouraging people to change one way or the other."

While the Electoral Commission acknowledged that people swapping roles could see some vote strategically, it said it was more important to provide greater flexibility for Māori voters.

National’s position had also attracted criticism both within and outside its party, as well as accusations of hypocrisy over National and ACT’s deal in the Epsom electorate.

National list MP Joanne Hayes said she personally thought Māori should be able to switch rolls more often, but would need to speak with the rest of the party.

Labour MP for Māori electorate Tāmaki Makaurau and Civil Defence Minister Peeni Henare said Mr Smith was “scaremongering”.

“Desperate from a party and an individual who knows that they're going to struggle at this election,” he said.

Minister of Employment Willie Jackson said Māori voters were “getting tired of being played with, getting tired of being looked at as dumb, getting tired of being told that they can be manipulated”.

Mr Smith said he wasn’t suggesting and didn’t think Māori voters were stupid or easily manipulated.

“Not at all, quite the opposite,” he said.

Addressing the issue of the Epsom electorate, he said National wasn’t manipulating voters in Epsom by telling them to vote for the ACT candidate, and that voters had a choice about who they wanted to vote for.

At the 2017 General Election, more than 19,000 people requested to change rolls but could not. The next time people are able to switch rolls is in 2024, missing the deadline for the upcoming election. 

The national manager of enrolment and community engagement at the Electoral Commission Mandy Bohté told RNZ the number of people asking to switch increased when it was close to a General Election or local body election.

There are more than three million voters on the general roll and about 245,000 on the Māori roll.