Election Day through the Years

General elections have always been important public events. But the experience of voting in the 1850s was very different from today.history-voting-slip_0.jpg

In those years, there was no single election day. Elections were organised locally, and each returning officer was usually responsible for several electorates. Therefore elections were staggered over weeks or even months.

The first parliamentary elections in 1853 began on 14 July (in the Bay of Islands) and ended on 1 October (in Otago). There were only 24 electorates, but some of them returned two or three members, so 37 representatives were elected. The first Parliament met in May 1854 in Auckland (which was the capital until 1865).

Did you know?

A single election day throughout New Zealand was not introduced until 1881. Even then, elections in general (European) and Maori seats were held on different days until 1951.



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On the Hustings

In many ways, New Zealand's first elections were small-scale replicas of those in Britain.history-harts-poster-1853_0.jpg

Once the returning officer had set a date for the nomination of candidates, a temporary wooden stage - known as the 'hustings' - would be erected in some prominent public place.

Sometimes large, unruly crowds would gather on nomination day; on other occasions only a handful of electors would bother to show up. Candidates had to be proposed and seconded by registered electors, but the candidates themselves did not have to be present.

If there were more candidates than seats to be filled, those electors present would vote by a show of hands. Defeated candidates or their supporters could then demand that a poll be taken, and this would normally be held a day or two later.

Voting was held on working days, and polls were only open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Each elector had to hand the polling official a voting paper, containing the name of his chosen candidate(s) and his own details. These voting papers were usually supplied (and filled in) by the candidates' committees. There was little or no secrecy about the way people voted.

As in Britain, New Zealand's early elections (especially in cities and towns) were often colourful, noisy and drunken occasions. Candidates and their supporting committees hired musicians, flew banners, and organised parades and banquets.

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Under the Influence

Auckland's early elections were especially notorious for drunkenness and corruption.

In 1855, one candidate's committee room was described as 'nothing better than a chistory-chch-1930s_0.jpgommon drinking booth a regular tippling-shop', where 'half-intoxicated men were seen either reeling out of their own accord, or being dragged to record their votes at the poll'.

Another was said to have 'rolled a hogshead of rum into the street with his own hands, and invited the electors to fall in'. So much free grog was distributed in the military Pensioner Settlements electorate that, according to one observer, 'one pensioner is already dead, and another dying' from overindulgence.

There were also frequent allegations of 'treating' (where candidates provided free alcohol or food to entice electors to vote for them), bribery and intimidation of electors.

In addition, some electoral rolls were inaccurate or bloated with out-of-date or false entries. This made it easy for unscrupulous electors to impersonate others and vote twice.

Often, however, early parliamentary elections attracted little attention, especially in rural areas. Even the largest electorates usually only had one or two polling booths. Sometimes settlers needed to travel on horseback for a day to cast their votes. Not surprisingly, many didn't bother.

Did you know?

Until 1938 elections in New Zealand were always held on weekdays. That year, and again in 1943, voting was held on Saturday, but in 1946 and 1949 it reverted to Wednesday. It wasn't until 1950 that the law was changed to make all elections take place on Saturdays.

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Cleaning up Elections

The New Zealand Parliament - alarmed by reports of electoral abuses in Auckland - soon decided that the electoral laws needed tightening up.history-women-1899_0.jpg

So in 1858 it passed a series of reform acts, which defined and prohibited treating, bribery and 'undue influence'. Candidates were banned from employing musicians and displaying banners. The placement of committee rooms and polling booths in pubs was also outlawed.

At the time, some politicians urged the adoption of the secret ballot (often called the 'Australian' or 'Victorian' ballot, as it was first adopted in Victoria in 1856). They claimed that this would help stamp out bribery, treating and intimidation - because there would be less incentive to try to influence or threaten electors if their votes could not be traced.

But not everyone thought that voting should be secret. To many, the vote was not an individual right but an important 'public trust' granted to certain citizens to exercise on behalf of their community. Open (public) voting ensured that the holders of this trust were accountable to those who were excluded from the franchise - including, for example, women.

So, instead of the secret ballot, in 1858 Parliament introduced a new verbal voting system. Each elector was required to state the name of the candidate he wished to vote for out loud to the polling official. The official would then record the vote in a poll book, and the elector would sign his name alongside the entry.

This method, its supporters claimed, would at least require the elector to be sober enough to speak. Of course verbal voting was not secret - in 1860 one Auckland newspaper even published a list showing how every elector had voted.



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The Secret Ballot

Verbal voting lasted until 1870, when Parliament finally agreed to adopt the secret ballot.

At the 1871 general election, each voter was given a printed ballot paper listing the candihistory-wellington-crowd_1.jpgdates in their electorate. They marked the paper in private behind a screen and then deposited it into a locked ballot box. This established a method of voting that has been more or less the same ever since.

Secret voting was important because it reinforced the idea that the vote was an individual right, which each elector should be free to exercise according to their conscience, without fear of intimidation. This helped to open the way for the later expansion of the franchise to all adult men - and eventually to women.

The secret ballot and other reforms also did much to improve election-day behaviour, and since the 1870s voting in New Zealand elections has usually been orderly and above suspicion of corruption.




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A Night on the Town

Election nights were still lively and sometimes disorderly occasions.history-masterton-1884_0.jpg

In the early years large crowds would gather outside the main polling station (usually the courthouse) to hear the returning officer announce the local result(s) and the candidates thank their supporters. Groups of young men would often throw eggs, rotten fruit, flour-bombs or firecrackers, and drunken fights were common.

In the 1850s it could take days or even weeks to get news of election results from elsewhere in New Zealand. As the telegraph network expanded in the late nineteenth century, however, preliminary results could be forwarded to the main centres on election night.

By the early twentieth century newspaper offices had become the new centres of election-night activity. Huge crowds would gather to watch as the latest results were posted on massive outdoor election boards. Candidates would often address the crowd from a balcony, to the cheers or jeers of those assembled.

These scenes were common in New Zealand towns and cities until after the Second World War, when the growing dominance of radio (and later television) broadcasting began to shift the focus of election night off the streets and into the living room.

Flour-bombs and Firecrackers

The 1879 election in Christchurch was one of the most dramatic and violent in New Zealand's history. As night fell, a crowd of 1,500 drunken 'larrikins' battled the city's 33 policemen at the corner of High and Cashel streets, hurling flour-bombs, firecrackers and stones, and smashing several shop windows.


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