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Election Days

Page 4 – Nights on the town

There was plenty of colour and controversy in the 1850s, but election days in New Zealand since that time have generally been orderly affairs. Even so, election nights could still be lively occasions. 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.

The 1879 election in Christchurch, for example, was one of the most dramatic and violent in New Zealand's history. As night fell, a crowd of 1500 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.

A Wanganui elector later recalled some of the 'horseplay' that occurred on election night in 1890, when John Ballance (soon to become Premier) won the local seat by just 27 votes:

We went over to the Courthouse for the declaration of the poll. The returning officer was Mr Garland Woon, who was a very dignified old gentleman with a long white beard. And he came out onto the veranda of the Courthouse, and he just began saying 'ladies and gentlemen, I have to announce the results of the poll for this electorate' when a very rotten egg took him right in the face ... After Mr Ballance was declared elected ... the crowd brought his carriage along and put him in the carriage, and started to drag him along Ridgway Street. And from some of the crowd he was pelted with eggs and flour in small paper bags and was very soon smothered in it. Unfortunately one of the people in the street put a stone inside his paper bag and Mr Ballance got rather a bad cut on his face.

Posting the results

In the 1850s and 1860s 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 19th century, preliminary results could be forwarded to the main centres on election night.

By the early 20th 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.

 


How to cite this page

Nights on the town, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/election-day/night-on-the-town, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated