New Zealand had a high degree of electoral political participation in the 20th century, but there has been a steady decline since the 1960s.
Political party membership and campaigning
One of the key ways in which citizens have been involved in electoral politics has been through membership of political parties. In the period after the Second World War New Zealand was said to have one of the highest rates of membership in the Western world. About a quarter of all voters were members of a party in the 1960s. The level has declined significantly, and by the 2010s only about one voter in 50 was a member of a political party.
Similarly, in the 2000s fewer people were directly involved in campaign activities such as door-to-door canvassing and election rallies.
Voting is not compulsory in New Zealand, but in the period after the Second World War levels exceeded 90%. This declined by the 2000s to a turnout of about 75% (a rate last seen in 1893–1902). The turnout at the 2020 election was 82%, the highest since 1984.
Voter turnout is measured as a proportion of the ‘voting-age population’. This allows for the fact that although it is compulsory to register to vote, not everyone does – in 2020 about 94% of the estimated voting-age population was enrolled.
Edward Jollie was elected unopposed to represent the Cheviot electorate in 1859. ‘Elections in those days’, he wrote, ‘were not considered of much consequence. Settlers had so much to occupy them … and were so widely scattered about … that only those in the immediate vicinity of the place of nomination cared to attend. In the towns there was often considerable excitement but often more personal than political.’1
Participation in local government elections is much lower, despite the introduction of postal voting, partly to encourage voter participation. In the 2019 local government elections, 42% of eligible voters participated.
Mid-19th-century low point
Although there were mid-19th-century settlers who wanted the vote, and some elections were fiercely contested, many people were not very interested. Often those entitled to vote did not get their names onto the electoral roll, and until the 1880s many elections were decided by less than half of those registered.
Political activity, including voting, campaigning and standing for election, was dominated by middle-class and well-to-do men until the later 19th century, when women and working-class men became active.