Written by Elaine Mead - Voting and number of votes have occupied headlines recently in both New Zealand and the United States of America. Both countries recorded increased voter participation from previous years, almost 83% in New Zealand and nearly 63% in the United States, their highest voter turnout in over a century.
Whilst closely fought, the outcome in both countries was clear – to those who choose to see it – and highlights the importance of having and exercising a voice in a nation’s direction. The rallying cry of “Every Vote Counts” has never been more pertinent than in the current Presidential election, even if it has been paraphrased in recent protests to “Count Every Vote”.
On 28 November 1893 New Zealand women entered into polling booths and cast their hard-won vote. New Zealand was the first self-governing country in the world in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections.
Seven long years of petitions and protests and counter measures from anti-suffragists ended on 19 September, when the Governor of New Zealand Lord Glasgow signed a new Electoral Act into law. Two months later, the general election held on 28 November 1893 saw, “All women who were 'British subjects' and aged 21 and over, including Māori, were now eligible to vote”.
Thirteen petitions containing the signatures of 31,872 women and some men from across the country and the social spectrum were submitted to Parliament in a wheelbarrow. At the time, it was the largest petition ever gathered in Australasia.
According to reports it was presented with “great drama” by John Hall, Member of Parliament and suffrage supporter, who brought it into the House and unrolled it down the central aisle of the debating chamber until “it hit the end wall with a thud”.
Twelve of the petitions have not survived but one, containing 25,519 signatures, that was pasted together did and is on display at He Tohu – the National Library of New Zealand. It can also be searched online at https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/womens-suffrage/petition
Despite the short timeframe for voter registration, 109,461 women – about 84% of the adult female population – enrolled to vote in the election. On polling day 90,290 of them cast their votes, a turnout of 82% (far higher than the 70% turnout among registered male voters).
There were warnings from opponents of women’s suffrage that ‘lady voters’ might be harassed at polling booths. However, election day passed off in a relaxed, festive atmosphere and was considered one of the most orderly experienced to that date.
I often wonder what Kate Sheppard and her fellow campaigners would think of today’s world. No doubt they would see some reward for their efforts in New Zealand where we have our third female Prime Minister and once again the Governor-General and Chief Justice roles are held by women. We are fortunate New Zealand’s audio-visual archive, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision holds recorded interviews with some of those first women voters which you can find at https://ngataonga.org.nz/set/topics/32.
Having listened to some of them, I speculate they would shake their heads in disbelief at the behaviour and rhetoric following the Presidential election and what democracy in action looks like. They may even find the situation all too reminiscent of what they had to face. What I am sure they would not dispute is the right and opportunity for everyone to vote and the responsibility of voters to exercise that right.