Targeting voters abroad

Note: this post originally appeared on ‘Douglas to Dancing’, a blog I maintained from 2007-9 on the ACT New Zealand political party. The blog was an extension of the thesis I wrote about the Act Party in 2007, From Douglas to Dancing: explaining the lack of success of ACT New Zealand and evaluating its future prospects (PDF).

Finding on my return that the election was so close was something of a surprise – November 8 is certainly not far away! For voters abroad such as myself, it will be even sooner. I received a letter from Elections NZ advising me on how to vote from overseas and it looks like the easiest way will be to download and fax my voting papers back to New Zealand – from two and a half weeks prior to the actual day.

A figure I’ve heard quoted before is that there are some one million New Zealanders living overseas. I don’t know if this is accurate – but if there are about 500,000 New Zealanders in Australia and at least 100,000 in the United Kingdom (as was reported around the time of the 2005 London underground bombings), it seems plausible. Not every New Zealand passport holder automatically has a vote, however. If New Zealand citizens do not return to New Zealand at least once every 3 years, their voting rights are withdrawn. To me this seems extremely unfair considering that New Zealand generously grants even permanent residents the right to vote, but I think most New Zealanders would return at least once within that timeframe – so let’s say that makes around 750,000 eligible voters.

This would make them an important and much neglected voting bloc. ACT recognised the influence of overseas voters earlier than most – it established a contact point in London in its start-up phase in the mid-1990s headed by Simon Walker. Walker was involved in the right-wing think tank called the Centre for Independent Studies in the 1990s and as I recall edited a book or two. I don’t know what the status of his involvement with ACT is these days – he still seems to be based in the United Kingdom according to a quick search on Google.

Fast forward to 2008 and I don’t know if ACT is doing anything concrete to target voters abroad, who must be tricky to round up. With the possible exception of a couple of Australian cities, the concentration of NZers is so weak that traditional advertising methods such as newspaper and television advertising is out of the question (indeed even where it could be technically possible, it would be ruled out for expense reasons alone), leaving only the internet. Yet even here there is limited scope: taking out advertisements on the New Zealand Herald website or similar could be an option, but this assumes voters are actively engaged in NZ matters and that they do not ignore the online advertising (which is much easier to do on-screen than in a physical publication or TV broadcast).

Social networking websites, via methods such as Facebook groups, offer an alternative, but again they assume that the interest of the voters is high enough to encourage them to seek them out. I suspect that social networking is most of use for political parties themselves – ACT has created a number of “fan” pages on Facebook to rally the troops for the campaign. This method is probably particularly effective for the small but vocal ACT on Campus legion of supporters.

ACT should be interested in overseas voters – perhaps more so than most parties. Because it takes some degree of get-up-and-go for someone to move overseas, quite often because of a job opportunity, many are on the other end of the “brain drain”. They know why they left New Zealand – and they know what it will take for them to want to return. In addition, I suspect the income of New Zealanders living abroad is disproportionately high compared with their countrymen living at home, not only because of higher wages abroad, but also because their work is likely to be more highly skilled on average. We know from election studies that ACT voters are likely to be earning a higher income on average, so it is plausible that a higher proportion of voters living abroad vote for ACT. Because overseas voters are hard to track down, however, I do not believe there are any actual statistics to prove this one way or the other. For practical reasons, election studies have focused only on New Zealand residents.

As a final note, I suspect that there are many New Zealanders living abroad who could vote, but do not, simply because of the perceived hassle involved and a certain level of disconnection from the election campaign. You cannot vote online. While are fax machines are more convenient than conventional post, they feel like 1990s technology. Moreover, it’s almost impossible to avoid the election when you’re at home – step outside your house and you’ll see a billboard somewhere. When abroad, your awareness will come from checking online and talking to friends and family in NZ – but it’s unlikely to be omnipresent. (Incidentally, with the US elections so closely followed abroad, this situation would be quite different for Americans overseas, who can quite easily keep up with the campaign without actively seeking out information).

ACT and other political parties would be well advised to encourage non-resident eligible NZ voters to put some effort in and cast their vote at the election.

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