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How do Māori seats work? Part 1

In brief
  • Technically, non-Māori can run for a Māori seat, but only Māori may enrol on the Māori electoral roll to vote. 
  • Census and Māori electoral roll numbers determine the number of Māori seats.
  • Māori electorates are larger than General electorates in terms of area, the same population, but the numbers of registered voters per Māori electoral roll is substantially less.

What are Māori seats?

Māori seats (also known as Māori electorates) are a form of guaranteed representation in Parliament and were meant to be temporary when introduced in 1867.

Māori seats can be contested by non-Māori as long as certain criteria are met, including knowledge of Māori customs and culture, etc. However, only those of Māori descent can be on the Māori electoral roll although proof of descent mainly relies on self-identification.

In 2022, the Electoral (Māori Electoral Option) Legislation Act made it possible for Māori voters to switch between the two rolls at any up time until three months before the general election—previously it was every 5 years. If you are not on either roll, then you can be added even on the date of the election.

The party vote works the same for either roll.

Illustration showing the concept of Māori seats in New Zealand's electoral system
You need not be Māori to run for one of the Māori seats, but you do need the right qualifications.

How are the number of Māori seats determined?

The number of Māori seats was fixed at four from 1867 until seat numbers became floating with The Electoral Act 1993, which also brought in Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting. The Act contains a formula to determine the number of Māori seats based on the Census and Māori electoral roll.

Today there are seven Māori seats alongside 65 General seats and the remaining are 49 party list seats for a total of 121 seats in Parliament (with possible overhang seats yet to be determined).

Māori electorates are superimposed over the same geographic areas as General electorates so as to cover the entire country.

The number of people deemed to be in all the Māori electorates is calculated by determining the percentage of enrolled Māori, that are on the Māori roll, multiplied by the total Māori according to the Census.

For example, if there were 900,000 Māori, with only 500,000 enrolled to vote (as of 3 months before the election), and 60% of the 500,000 chose the Māori roll, then there would be deemed to be 540,000 (0.6 X 900,000) Māori (being represented by the voters on the Māori roll) in all the Māori electorates. Note these are illustrative numbers only.

The number of Māori electorates would then be set based on how many people are in an average electorate, with some rounding involved. (Māori electorates are currently set at 67,582). 

Children and others not eligible to vote are included in the number of people so the number of potential voters is less.

There seems to be a lower percentage of Māori registered than non-Māori. Perhaps there is also a difference in the number of children. In any event, there ends up being less voters on the Māori roll, per Māori electorate, than there are registered voters for regular electorates. This could leave someone with the impression something is unfair (ie. each Maori vote counts for more) but it doesn’t seem like it is when you work through it.

Māori seats are not entrenched

The Maori seats can be changed in any way Parliament might want with an ordinary 50% plus vote.

The recent supposedly Independent Electoral Review Interim report, released June 2023, calls for entrenching Māori seats. That is very unlikely since all of Act, NZ First and National have recently said they would like to eliminate the Maori seats.

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