New Zealand’s first parliamentary election was held in 1853. Like most aspects of New Zealand’s political system, the right to vote (also called the electoral franchise or suffrage) reflected British tradition. Although the colony’s franchise was liberal for its time, not everyone could vote. Women, most Māori men and a minority of European men were excluded.
The right to vote was extended to all Māori men in 1867 and to all European men in 1879. Then in 1893 New Zealand famously led the world by giving women the right to vote. Four decades on from its first election, New Zealand was probably the most democratic country in the world.
The New Zealand Constitution Act, passed by the British Parliament in 1852, established a system of government for the colony. This act also set the rules for voting in New Zealand’s first parliamentary and provincial elections, which took place in 1853. But not everyone was able to participate. As in Britain at this time, voting was not seen as an individual right of citizenship, but as a ‘privilege’ or ‘trust’ that should be exercised by some on behalf of others.
In keeping with British tradition, the right to vote was defined by:
The link between suffrage and property did not mean that only wealthy landowners could vote. Men could qualify in three ways:
Householders could only vote in the electoral district in which they lived, but freeholders and leaseholders could register and vote in any electorate in which they held land. This meant that some electors could vote in half a dozen seats. Plural voting, as it was known, was common in the 1850s and survived until 1889. Electors had to appear in person to vote in each electorate, but until 1881 there was no single election day – voting in different electorates was usually held on different days.
New Zealand’s franchise was considered generous at the time. Attorney-General William Swainson thought it ‘the most liberal that has ever been granted to a British colony.’1 Canterbury politician James FitzGerald agreed that there was ‘hardly any man who cannot get a vote in New Zealand’, as long as he was ‘not of the pauper or criminal classes.’2
Acquiring property was one of most migrants’ main ambitions, and labourers could earn £40–£60 a year in New Zealand. As a result, probably three-quarters of the adult European males in the colony were eligible to vote. This was far more than in 1850s England (where about one in five men could vote) or Scotland (one in eight).
In the 1860s, station owner and writer Samuel Butler ridiculed the idea that his hard-drinking farm labourers should have the vote. He wrote, ‘Their political knowledge is absolutely nil, and, were the colony to give them political power, it might as well give gunpowder to children.’3
Among those excluded from voting were ‘aliens’ (non-British subjects), inmates of prisons and asylums, very recent immigrants (voters had to live in an electorate for at least six months before enrolling) and transient workers such as agricultural labourers, bushmen and seafarers, who seldom possessed property.
Another significant group was disadvantaged by the 1852 franchise: Māori. The right to vote was not, in theory, defined by race. Māori were British subjects and many could have qualified as rural householders. Around 100 Māori (mostly tribal leaders who owned houses in or near European settlements) did register and vote in the 1853 election, but wider participation was discouraged.
Māori could not qualify through possession of communal land – and most Māori land was owned communally – only through ownership of land in individual title granted by the Crown. Most settlers welcomed this limitation, believing that Māori (like ill-educated European farm labourers) were not yet capable of exercising such an important responsibility.
In 1860 New Zealand’s Parliament extended the right to vote for the first time – to gold miners. As they often lived in rough shacks, tents or lodging houses, few miners qualified to vote under the property requirement. They were given voting rights as a precaution, in direct response to protest and violence that erupted on the goldfields of Victoria, Australia, in the 1850s. Giving miners a voice in Parliament was seen as the best way to avoid similar trouble.
The 1860 legislation followed gold discoveries in the Nelson region, and was passed even before the great Otago rush of 1861. Modelled on law from Victoria, it allowed any male British subject over 21 who held a miner’s right (a licence, which cost £1 a year) to vote in his local electorate without having to enrol.
Not all gold miners were enfranchised under the 1860 law. By 1869 there were 2,000 Chinese on New Zealand’s goldfields; in 1881 there were 5,000. As ‘aliens’, most were unable to vote, although a small minority became naturalised British subjects.
Later in the decade, as thousands of miners poured into Otago and Westland, Parliament created special goldfields seats in those districts. In 1863 voting was extended to holders of goldfield business licences, which cost £5 a year. For the next few years gold miners were a significant part of the electorate: in 1870 there were only 41,500 registered electors in all of New Zealand, but 20,000 miners were also eligible to vote.
Special representation for gold miners provided a model for solving another electoral ‘problem’ – voting rights for Māori. Since 1853 most Māori had been unable to vote because they possessed land communally rather than under individual title.
The wars of the 1860s between Māori and the Crown focused attention on Māori political rights. Pākehā politicians such as Donald McLean argued that giving Māori a voice in Parliament would be ‘a bare act of justice’ and help ensure lasting peace between the races.1 Others wanted to reward the tribes that had fought on the Crown’s side in the New Zealand wars.
In 1867 McLean introduced a private member’s bill to create four Māori seats, superimposed over all other electorates: three in the North Island, and one covering the entire South Island. To avoid difficulties with communal property, all Māori men aged 21 or over would be eligible to vote and stand for Parliament. There was some debate about the details, but the bill was comfortably passed. Several thousand Māori freeholders already enrolled in European electorates were able to vote in both systems until 1893.
The Maori Representation Act 1867 gave Māori men universal suffrage 12 years before their Pākehā counterparts. But four seats was a small concession: on a per-capita basis, Māori were entitled to around 15 seats (Pākehā had 72). The seats were intended to be temporary, but in 1876 they were established on a permanent basis. In the 21st century the Māori seats remain one of the most distinctive – and contentious – features of New Zealand’s electoral system.
The extension of the right to vote to all adult men – often called universal male suffrage or ‘manhood suffrage’ – has been overshadowed by the Māori seats and women’s suffrage. But this 1879 reform arguably had the greatest impact on the character of New Zealand politics and the make-up of Parliament.
Manhood suffrage had been debated in New Zealand since the 1840s, but there was at first no urgent demand for reform. However, in the 1870s and 1880s the abolition of provincial government, the growing power of central government, large-scale immigration and economic depression began to transform politics.
The adoption of the secret ballot in 1870 (in place of verbal voting) opened the door for further electoral reform. Secret voting reinforced the idea that the vote was an individual right rather than a privilege or public trust. Inspired by the writings of British philosopher John Stuart Mill, New Zealand electoral reformers such as William Reynolds argued that all men (with some exceptions, such as criminals) deserved the right to vote.
In the 1870s Parliament considered a number of bills to extend the franchise. A Lodgers’ Franchise Act, designed to enfranchise young tradesmen and clerks living in city lodging houses, was passed in 1875 but soon proved unworkable. An attempt to simplify registration procedures, which inadvertently appeared to enfranchise all male ratepayers, further confused matters.
By 1876 there were different franchises for freeholders, leaseholders, householders, gold miners, lodgers, ratepayers and Māori. Most politicians favoured a simple manhood suffrage, but the unstable political scene complicated reform efforts.
In 1878 two rival bills appeared in Parliament. One was introduced by Robert Stout, the young attorney-general in George Grey’s government, the other by his predecessor as attorney-general, Frederick Whitaker, who was by then in Opposition.
Whitaker’s bill – which radically proposed proportional representation and the allocation of Māori seats according to population – failed to gain support. The government bill fared little better. It stalled in the Legislative Council (the upper house) over the issue of Māori landowners’ voting rights, and was ultimately abandoned.
Grey’s government was soon defeated and in October 1879 John Hall formed a new government. Back in cabinet, Whitaker introduced a simplified version of Stout’s 1878 bill, granting the vote to all adult European males after 12 months’ residence in New Zealand and six months in an electorate. The freeholders’ qualification and plural voting, which Hall defended as ‘a moderate recognition of the rights of property’, would be retained, with the threshold reduced from £50 to £25.1 The bill was passed in December 1879.
The impact was immediate. In 1879 there were 82,271 registered voters, about 71% of the adult male Pākehā population. When the next election was held in 1881, there were 120,972 registered voters, 91% of adult Pākehā men. The character of Parliament also began to change. Since the 1850s most politicians had come from the wealthy colonial elite, but in the 1880s and 1890s more ‘working men’ were elected.
Another key reform followed in 1889, when plural voting by freeholders was abolished, establishing the principle of ‘one man, one vote’. In 1893 New Zealand would achieve worldwide fame by embracing a far more radical political principle: ‘one person, one vote’.
On 19 September 1893, when the governor, Lord Glasgow, signed a new Electoral Act into law, New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world to grant the right to vote to all adult women. At the time this was a truly radical change: many other democracies did not allow women to vote until decades later.
In the late 19th century a broad movement for women’s political rights, including voting rights, developed in Britain and its colonies, the United States and northern Europe. Its earliest successes would come in colonial and frontier societies like Australasia and the American Midwest.
Suffrage campaigners drew inspiration from two sources. Ideas of equality were championed by John Stuart Mill and British feminists, including Barbara Bodichon and some women’s suffrage societies. With that went the missionary zeal of the American temperance movement, which believed the vote would allow women to save society from the evils of drink.
Offers of free drinks, trickery, bogus or children’s names, multiple signatures in the same handwriting, sometimes copied from street directories (including the name of at least one prominent suffrage supporter) were all part of the liquor-industry petition against women gaining the vote. But the hoteliers and brewers didn’t get the numbers they needed, and the tactics used meant the petitions were an embarrassing failure.
The New Zealand campaign was driven by the local branch of the American-based Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1885. Non-temperance franchise leagues and unions also played an important role. Led by the WCTU’s Kate Sheppard, suffragists organised a series of massive petitions to Parliament. They collected 9,000 signatures in 1891, 20,000 in 1892 and nearly 32,000 – almost one in four women – in 1893.
Opponents mobilised too. Some argued that upsetting ‘natural’ gender roles would endanger the family and society. The liquor industry feared that pro-temperance women voters would put them out of business.
Parliament was divided. In 1878, 1879 and 1887 bills or amendments to enfranchise women (or at least female ratepayers) had only been narrowly defeated. Many leading politicians supported women’s suffrage, including John Hall, Robert Stout, Julius Vogel and John Ballance. Others such as Richard Seddon, who became premier in 1893, were hostile.
In 1891, 1892 and 1893 women’s suffrage bills comfortably passed the House of Representatives (the lower house). On the first two occasions they were defeated in the Legislative Council (the upper house). In 1893 Seddon tried to ensure the same result by lobbying councillors, but his meddling backfired. Two councillors changed their votes to embarrass the premier and on 8 September the upper house passed the Electoral Bill by 20 votes to 18.
When the governor signed the law on 19 September, suffragists celebrated a famous victory and congratulations poured in from around the world. It was only six weeks until registration closed for the 28 November election, but 109,461 women, or about 84% of those eligible, enrolled to vote. On polling day 90,290 of them (plus perhaps 4,000 Māori women, who voted on 20 December) voted – two out of every three adult women in the country.
Colonial elections were often rough-and-tumble affairs, and suffrage opponents had warned of ‘boorish and half-drunken men’ harassing ‘lady voters’ at the booths. But the 1893 election was described as the most orderly ever held. The Christchurch Press thought ‘the pretty dresses of the ladies and their smiling faces lighted up the polling booths most wonderfully.’1
New Zealand’s early embrace of women’s voting rights has become a key part of its identity as a world-leading, progressive democracy. In 1990 Kate Sheppard was commemorated (alongside the suffragists’ symbol, the white camellia) on New Zealand’s $10 banknote. The 1993 centenary was marked by nationwide celebrations, conferences, books and memorials.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Atkinson, Neill. Adventures in democracy: a history of the vote in New Zealand. Dunedin: University of Otago Press in association with the Electoral Commission, 2003.
Grimshaw, Patricia. Women's suffrage in New Zealand. 2nd ed. Auckland: University of Auckland Press; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Lovell-Smith, Margaret (ed.). The woman question: writings by the women who won the vote. Auckland: New Women's Press, 1992.
McRobie, Alan. New Zealand electoral atlas. Wellington: GP Books, 1989.
Rei, Tania. Māori women and the vote. Wellington: Huia, 1993