New Zealand's first elections were like small-scale replicas of those in Britain. Once the returning officer had set a date for the nomination of candidates, a temporary wooden stage, known as the 'hustings', was erected in some prominent public place.
Sometimes large boisterous crowds would gather on nomination day, but on other occasions only a handful of people would show up. Candidates had to be proposed and seconded by registered electors, but did not have to be present themselves. If there were more candidates than seats to be filled, those present would vote by a show of hands. Defeated candidates or their supporters could then demand that a poll be taken, and this would normally be held a day or two later.
A single election day throughout New Zealand was not introduced until 1881. Even then, voting in general (European) and Maori seats was held on different days up until 1951. All elections from 1881 to 1935 were held on weekdays. In 1938 and again in 1943, election day was a Saturday, but in 1946 and 1949 it reverted to a Wednesday. It was not until 1950 that the law was changed to make all elections take place on Saturdays.
Elections were held on working days, and the polling places were only open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Each elector had to hand the polling official a voting paper, containing the name of his chosen candidate(s) and his own details. These papers were usually supplied (and often filled in) by the candidates' campaign committees. There was little or no secrecy about who people had voted for.
As in Britain, New Zealand's early elections (especially in cities and towns) were often colourful, noisy and drunken affairs. Candidates and their committees hired musicians, flew banners, and organised parades and banquets for their supporters.
Auckland's early elections were particularly notorious, with numerous allegations of drunkenness and corruption. In 1855, one candidate's committee room was described as 'nothing better than a common drinking booth − a regular tippling-shop', where 'half-intoxicated men were seen either reeling out of their own accord, or being dragged to record their votes at the poll'. Another candidate was said to have 'rolled a hogshead of rum into the street with his own hands, and invited the electors to fall in'.
As well as 'treating' (where candidates laid on free food or drink to entice electors to vote for them), there were widespread allegations of bribery and intimidation. Some electoral rolls were inaccurate or bloated with out-of-date or false entries, including the names of recently deceased electors. This made it easy for unscrupulous electors to impersonate others and vote more than once.
In other seats, though, general elections aroused little interest. This was especially the case in many of the large rural electorates, where some settlers had to travel on horseback for a day or more to reach one of the relatively few polling places. Not surprisingly, many didn't bother and turnout was often low.