Story: Voting rights
Page 5 – 20th century reforms
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 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.
Māori roll or general roll
Also in 1975 an important change 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 either the Māori roll or the general roll.