The big questions over the right to vote were decided in the 19th century. However, there were some important changes to New Zealand’s franchise in the 20th century, in particular the lowering of the voting age.
Age of reason
The voting age in New Zealand, as in most democracies, had always been 21. But in the 1960s pressure began to mount for a lowering of this age of political maturity. This move was driven by the demographic forces of the post-war ‘baby boom’, the massive expansion of secondary and university education, and the emerging student protest movement against the Vietnam War.
Fighting for the right
Some New Zealanders aged under 21 had voted long before 1969. During both world wars, special laws were passed to enable all New Zealand military personnel to vote in wartime elections, whether they were 21 or not.
An increasingly well-off and well-educated generation of young people wanted a voice in politics. Despite some resistance, many older people agreed it would be better for the young to channel their energies into mainstream politics rather than street protests.
Between 1969 and 1974 the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in Britain, the United States, Australia, Canada and other countries. New Zealand followed suit, but did it in two steps, to 20 in 1969 and 18 in 1974.
The issue of nationality was also reviewed in the 1970s. New Zealand citizenship had been established in 1948, but electoral law still required voters to be a ‘British subject’, as it had since 1852. In 1975 those words were deleted, and the franchise was widened to allow permanent residents to vote, whether or not they had New Zealand citizenship. But only citizens are allowed to become members of Parliament.
Prisoners were denied the right to vote until the Electoral Act was amended by the Labour government in 1975. Their enfranchisement was brief – the National government reverted to the previous situation in 1977. The Electoral Act 1993 allowed for a limited prisoner franchise, though those serving a life sentence, preventative detention or a sentence of three years or more could not vote. From 2010 no prisoner sent to gaol after 16 December that year could vote. Those serving sentences of less than three years were enfranchised once again in 2020.
In addition to prisoners, other people who could not vote in the 2010s included (under certain circumstances) mental health patients detained in hospitals and people with intellectual disabilities living in secure facilities. Anyone on the Corrupt Practices List (people who had committed an electorally corrupt practice) were also unable to vote.
Māori roll or general roll
Another important change in 1975 affected Māori voters. Following the establishment of Māori seats in 1867, two parallel electoral systems had emerged. For a while some Māori landowners could vote in both, but from the 1890s the two systems were rigidly separated. Māori voted in Māori seats and Pākehā in European (general) seats; only so-called ‘half-castes’ (those with a Māori parent and a Pākehā parent) could choose between the two.
That changed in 1975, when all Māori electors, regardless of degrees of descent, were given the right to choose whether to register on the Māori roll or the general roll.