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A key date in our electoral history

Tomorrow marks an interesting anniversary in New Zealand’s electoral history.

On December 6, 1905, registered voters who were away from their electorate on polling day were, for the first time, able to cast a ‘special’ absentee vote at any polling booth in New Zealand, with that vote subsequently posted to the voters’ local returning officer in order to be counted.

In the event, 2781 electors [or 0.67 per cent of the 412,702 total turnout] cast their vote this way, a mere fraction of the 603,257 special votes made for this year’s general election – representing a whopping 20.9 per cent of the total 2,883,412 votes.

Although this was an innovation, however, 1905 wasn’t the first time absentee voters were enabled to cast their votes but merely an extension of such voting rights. Special votes had been first introduced for merchant sailors in 1890 and were later extended to cover shearers and commercial travellers.

Actually, though, today is an even more significant date as far as voting laws go.

The first New Zealand election in which no one could vote in more than one general electoral district was held on this date 133 years ago.

Prior to that, there had been a longstanding practice that allowed those who owned property in more than one electorate to cast votes in each of those territories.

As such, 1890 marked the first ‘one man, one vote’ election in the country’s history – with the first ‘one person, one vote’ poll held three years later, after women won their suffrage rights.

There were other electoral transitions still in train between those two elections. In 1890, property owners were still able to enrol in each district in which they owned land but had to decide on election day where they would cast their now single vote – a ‘plural registration’ rule that was abolished in 1893.

Also abolished that year was a dual vote for Māori property owners that had existed since the Māori seats were introduced in 1867.

Now, it may transpire that December 5, 2023, will come to be regarded as an even more major milestone in New Zealand’s political history.

In addition to the “Nationwide Action Day” that Te Pāti Māori has called to protest what it describes as the “anti-Māori” policies of the new coalition government, there have been suggestions that – during today’s swearing in of the new Parliament – the party’s six MPs will refuse to swear or affirm that they “will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King Charles the Third, His heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.”

Indeed, having released a statement on Friday in which the elected Te Pāti Māori MPs aver that “Māori owe no allegiance to the genocidal legacy of the British Empire” and “There is no honour in the Crown”, it would perhaps be a little odd if they do.

If this does come to pass, then we shall enter unchartered constitutional waters.

Those who do not take the Parliamentary Oath of Allegiance are unable to take their parliamentary seats, cast votes, or be paid as MPs. But at the same time, their seats are not declared vacant but are considered to be held by those who won them until the House is dissolved for the next general election.

In which case, things will become extremely ‘interesting’ well before that.


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