Skip to main content

Election Days

Page 3 – Cleaning up elections

The New Zealand Parliament was alarmed by reports of electoral abuses in Auckland in the 1850s. It decided that electoral laws needed to be tightened, and in 1858 passed a series of reform acts, which defined and prohibited treating, bribery and exercising 'undue influence' over electors. Candidates were banned from employing musicians and displaying banners. The placement of committee rooms and polling booths in public hotels 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.

A right or a privilege?

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 − and in 1860 one Auckland newspaper even published a list showing how every elector had voted.

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 candidates 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 pave the way for the expansion of the franchise to all adult men (1879), the abolition of plural voting in favour of 'one man one vote' (1890) and ultimately the introduction of women's suffrage (1893).

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

How to cite this page

Cleaning up elections, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated