Political Web sites pose legal dilemma

The King Country by-election exposed the technological limitations of the Electoral Act in the form of official party Web sites, but the issue is likely to be resolved before the general election. Most of the main political parties have Web sites which include contact details, policy statements and the like. The Chief Electoral Office has suggested that Web sites may be allowed to remain online as long as no changes are made to them.

The King Country by-election exposed the technological limitations of the Electoral Act in the form of official party Web sites, but the issue is likely to be resolved before the general election.

Most of the main political parties have Web sites (New Zealand First is the only exception) which include contact details, policy statements and the like. The Chief Electoral Office has suggested that Web sites may be allowed to remain online as long as no changes are made to them.

"So long as they don't add anything new to the site, I don't think we would have a problem with them," says a Chief Electoral Office spokesman, who stresses that a formal ruling has yet to be made.

By law, all advertising material must be removed from public view on polling day. Fines of up to $5000 can be imposed for breaches of the act. Exceptions already exist — news bulletins and official government press releases may be published or broadcast on polling day, although advertising by political parties is outlawed. "[Removing Web sites is] similar to asking politicians to find all the back issues of a newspaper and remove their ads — it would be impractical."

At the King Country by-election only the National Party made any attempt to shut down its site, switching off the main home page but leaving the rest intact. The other parties left their sites on line. At press time the National Party site remained unrestored.

In Australia advertising on the day of an election is perfectly acceptable, with voters "running the gauntlet" of advertising, sausage sizzles and party faithful offering pamphlets on how to vote for the "correct" candidate. Here in New Zealand, limits to such activities reduce the amount of advertising to the bare minimum. Now would-be politicians can add the Web site to the campaign rosette on the approved list.

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