It’s the biggest political day of the season. The day that will set how this country will be led for the next three years. But you wouldn’t know that from reading the news.
If you’re eagerly browsing your favourite news website or newspaper looking for up-to-the-minute coverage of the election, you’re out of luck.
The law bars anyone from doing anything that could influence votes on election day, over the 19 hours between midnight and 7pm Saturday, when polls close.
These rules apply only for Saturday, despite the fact more than half of the country’s votes will have been cast by now, with 1.7m people casting their votes by the end of Thursday.
All of those early votes could well make for a very short election night, as the Electoral Commission will start counting them at 9am on Saturday. Results won’t be released until after 7pm, however.
For candidates this blackout means no more campaigning, with all the billboards taken down at midnight Friday, no public-facing events planned for Saturday, and no tweets or Facebook posts asking for votes. They also can’t conduct polls, as that could influence the vote.
For news companies it means basically no political coverage, as any of that could conceivably influence your vote. We can’t tell you what political leaders said as their final pitch, what we think this election has been all about, or who has campaigned well. Some may well see this as a welcome reprieve.
Candidates and their supporters are allowed to do some things.
They can wear party colours or rosettes. They can also encourage voting itself, just not votes for any specific party or person.
Similarly for news media, there are some things that can be printed. We can talk about the fact there is an election, and discuss people going out to vote. We used to bring you photos of the various political leaders casting their ballots, but almost all of them do that early, so instead you are likely to see news featuring dogs at polling stations.
University of Otago Law Professor Andrew Geddis said the restrictions were an “anachronism” from an old-world view of voting, but people seemed to like it.
“It’s out-of-date and hard to justify from a Bill of Rights Act perspective,” Geddis said.
“The only justification that really gets put forward for it is that people just kind of like having a quiet day. It’s hard to say that for all those people who would like to talk about politics on election day can’t because some people like the quiet.”
The huge growth of advance voting in recent elections has made the law even more silly.
“Given that somewhere between 50 and 70 per cent of people have voted, there are two quite different rules. Advance voting happens when the election campaign is in full swing,” Geddis said.
He noted it would be “profoundly anti-democratic” to stop people from discussing the election during the early voting period, however.
Another excuse brought up is that the law stops a candidate putting out wrong information just before election day and not giving others a chance to refute it.
But Geddis noted the Electoral Act already makes it illegal to knowingly publish false information in an attempt to influence voters within three days of an election.
Eager political nerds have one more dose of news to read before polls close, though.
The Electoral Commission will release the early vote total at 2pm, letting the country know how many people had cast their ballots as at the end of Friday.
On Thursday, 176,229 people voted, the largest weekday total this election, bringing the overall number to more than 1.74 million. That’s just over half of those enrolled to vote.
If last election is any guide, Friday will have been the single largest day of early voting.