• Bryony Ammonds-Smith

The History of Voting in New Zealand

So there’s this election coming up, you might have heard about it? Maybe you have driven past a defaced sign, or gotten a tailored ad before your YouTube video? Have polls or policies become a topic of conversation?

Every three years, the New Zealand public rolls up their sleeves and casts their vote. In the midst of the chaos of 2020, we are mere days away. The history of voting in New Zealand has had a colourful history, and makes it all the more crucial today.


The history of a fair democracy often never has its foundations in the right place. From a modern perspective, the Western feat of democracy did not begin with a fair representation of the entirety of New Zealand society.

Following the Treaty of Waitangi and the establishment of a settler population in New Zealand, a Westminster-style of government was implemented in 1852. Māori seats were established in 1867, allowing for constant and permanent indigenous representation in politics. By the end of the nineteenth century, the seeds of the democratic system we operate under started to take shape, with a party system taking shape in the 1890s.

The original date of the 2020 election is more important than you may think. September 19 is more than just your average Saturday in spring, but the date in which women were granted the right to vote in 1893. Following a petition pioneered by women like Kate Sheppard that stretched out across sheets of wallpaper, New Zealand became the first self-governing nation in which universal suffrage was granted, and both Pakeha and Māori women could cast their vote. Māori women were figureheads within their iwi prior to colonisation, and eventually worked alongside the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the fight for women’s suffrage.

Regardless of this historical feat, there was still a level of exclusion implemented in the fabric of the blossoming New Zealand democracy. Women could not stand for a position in the House of Representatives until 1919. While they could vote in their individual political interests, they did not have a voice that could exclusively represent women’s issues. The first female MP elected to Parliament was Elizabeth McCombs in 1933 and the first female minister was Mabel Howard in 1947, but the first Māori woman to become an MP, Iriana Ratana, would not be elected until 1949.

When you vote, you are taking into account the moral standpoints of political parties. Politicians have control over the legal aspect of human rights, and quite literally can change the face of day-to-day life. For example, homosexuality was illegal until 1985. Same-sex civil unions were only granted in 2004, and same-sex marriage was legalised in 2013. That is within nearly all of our lifetimes, and those who voted for or against these legislations were elected by choice. Some still stand in the House today. Political beliefs are rooted in morals, so taking that into account is crucial when examining policies and priorities.

Politics constantly changes and faces controversy, praise or protest. Whether that is the rights of women, Māori or the LGBTQ+ community. The 1970s saw second-wave feminism, anti-apartheid and anti-nuclear protests, and the twentieth and twenty-first century bear witness to the fight for indigenous rights. The occupation of Bastion Point in 1977-78 and the ongoing protests at Ihumātao are ingrained in the social consciousness of New Zealand. Today, climate change and racial justice is protested in waves on the streets, and politicians do hear the cry of their constituents. Whether that results in immediate change or election results that favour a new government, the power of the people tends to be heard.


The New Zealand government operates under the Mixed Member Proportional voting system - or more commonly referred to by its far easier acronym MMP. This model of voting was first used in the 1996 general election, after receiving the majority vote in the 1993 referendum. The previous system was First Past the Post, but MMP allows for a more fair and inclusive House of Representatives. All New Zealand residents and citizens over eighteen have the right to vote, although the minimum age used to be twenty-one.

The floor of the Beehive has seen many political parties come and go. Some have stood with feet firmly in the building, such as the Labour Party founded in 1916. As times evolve and political climates change, new parties emerge and old ones dissolve, bringing about new faces in government and the opportunities for interesting coalitions. The National Party has been in government since 1936, while NZ First only emerged after Winston Peters’ infamous resignation from the National Party in 1993. New minor parties are constantly being created, making the array of campaign boards plastered down your street a little more colourful.


The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed back the date of the 2020 election. As previously mentioned, the initial date was September 19, decided by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. However, due to the second emergence of the virus and subsequent return to Level Three for Auckland, Ardern announced a date change to October 17. Early voting opened on October 5 across the country, and record numbers flocked to polling stations within the first weekend.

The basics of voting in 2020 are relatively straightforward - this year, we have four votes. We have the two votes that determine our government and community politics - the party vote and the electorate vote. A reflection of the continuation of MMP, and the importance of major and minor parties.

This year, we have two referendum votes on issues concerning the entire nation - the End of Life Choice Bill and the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill. If the public votes more than fifty percent in favour of the End of Life Choice Bill, it will be immediately passed into law. If the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill receives over fifty percent, it will be processed by the next government.

The New Zealand public has been given the chance to decide the legislation that will impact them, or people they know. This is not influenced by what politicians are voting for, but what you believe in. Do your research, and make your choices count.


Bryony Ammonds-Smith is a third-year Bachelor of Arts student double majoring in History and English at the University of Auckland. Her interests centre around the twentieth century, predominantly film, fashion and social change in Europe and New Zealand. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.


Raymond Miller, Democracy in New Zealand, Auckland, 2015.

NZLII, Electoral Act 1893 (57 VICT 1893 No 18) , accessed 7 August 2020, http://www.nzlii.org/nz/legis/hist_act/ea189357v1893n18180/.

New Zealand Parliament, 25 years since MMP referendum, accessed 7 August 2020 https://www.parliament.nz/en/get-involved/features/25-years-since-mmp-referendum/

Rethinking Women and Politics: New Zealand and Comparative Perspectives, eds, Kate McMillan, John Leslie and Elizabeth McLeay, Wellington, 2009.

Brittany Deguara, Election 2020: Over 165,000 early votes cast during first weekend of advance voting, accessed 9 October 2020, https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/122993221/election-2020-over-165000-early-votes-cast-during-first-weekend-of-advance-voting.

Leonie Hayden, Let’s not forget that Māori women had the vote long before the Europeans arrived, accessed 9 October 2020, https://thespinoff.co.nz/atea/19-09-2018/lets-not-forget-that-maori-women-had-the-vote-long-before-europeans-arrived/.

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