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The right to vote – how did we all get it in New Zealand?

Nov 5th, 2008 | By | Category: Featured Article, Features, Uncategorized

IN the hiss and roar of a New Zealand election campaign, it’s easy to forget that working-class people, Maori, and women had to fight to get the franchise. 

New Zealanders did not die campaigning for the right to vote, unlike other Western democracies such as Britain and the United States.  

But extending the right to vote still required campaigning, door-knocking, petitions, public meetings, and the establishment of separate representation for Maori.

British male subjects aged 21or older could vote in New Zealand’s first election in 1853 if they owned freehold property worth £50 or more, paid at least £10 a year to lease property, or lived in a house with an annual rental value of at least £10 (in a town) or £5 (outside a town).

This was a generous and wide franchise compared with other countries.  

Labourers could reach the property requirement on typical annual wages of £40, and Maori men were theoretically eligible because of the Treaty of Waitangi, a right not imagined for indigenous peoples elsewhere.   About 100 of the 5,849 enrolled for the 1853 election were Maori.  However, most were not eligible because land ownership was usually communal in iwi, hapu or whanau arrangements.

In 1860, the franchise was extended to registered gold miners in an attempt to stave off the violence Australian mining communities were experiencing at the time.

In 1867, after much debate, voting rights were extended to all Maori men over 21 with the establishment of four Maori seats.   This world first – indigenous men with universal voting rights before some European settlers – was an attempt, after the 1860s Land Wars, to assimilate Maori into the political mainstream and encourage peace. 

On a per capita basis there should have been 14-16 Maori seats in 1867.  The four Maori MPs were unsuccessful in trying to reduce their enormous electorates, partly because the seats were seen as a temporary measure until Maori began owning land individually. 

However, in 1876, the seats were made permanent as it became increasingly clear that many Maori had no wish to take up European norms of land ownership.

In 1879, after agitation from settlers who had been promised a classless society when they came to New Zealand, the franchise was extended to all European males, regardless of whether they owned or rented property.  At the same time in the United Kingdom, 40% of adult men were still unable to vote because of land ownership restrictions. 

New Zealand women fought for many years to gain the vote.  In 1869, Mary Muller published An Appeal to the Men of New Zealand, which was read all over the world, including by British liberal thinker and campaigner for women’s rights, John Stuart Mill, who wrote her a letter of encouragement.

In 1885, the first national women’s organisation in New Zealand, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, was established, and it quickly became a political organisation which lobbied for women to have a political voice through voting.

Kate Sheppard headed the franchise section of the WCTU in 1887, and serious campaigning began with public meetings all over the country at which women took the platform for the first time. 

A newspaper letter-writing campaign, pamphlet distribution, and the circulation of annual petitions over the next six years were accompanied by a deluge of letters, telegrams and meetings with politicians.  A petition in 1893 was signed by nearly 32,000 women over the age of 21 years – nearly a quarter of  the adult female population at the time.

The Electoral Act 1893 granted women in New Zealand the vote – the first nation state to do so.  Although Australia quickly followed in 1902 – except for Aboriginal women – many other democracies, notably Britain and the United States did not enfranchise women until after World War I.

More than a century later, one in five New Zealanders opted out of voting last election – but 81% opted in.

Perhaps our long history of near-universal suffrage in comparison with other nation states is part of the reason large numbers of New Zealanders vote compared with other settler colonies.  Apart from Australia, where voting is compulsory, New Zealanders are more likely to vote than Americans (69% in 2004), Canadians (65% in 2006), and the British (62% in 2005). 

PICTURE: Women lining up to vote in the 1899 election at a Auckland polling booth.  Photo from

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is a student journo who loves to write. Her interests, apart from media slavery, include social justice, music, sports and gardening. Preferably a combination of all four. She doesn't know yet what she wants to be when she grows up.
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