Once established, the Maori electoral system suffered from official neglect. Maori elections were certainly very different. Up until 1951 Maori voted on a different day from Europeans, often several weeks later; from 1919 to 1949 the Maori election was held the day before the general poll.
Although the secret ballot was introduced in European seats in 1870, it was not considered suitable for Maori. They continued to vote under the old verbal system – in which electors told the polling official who they wanted to vote for – until the 1938 election.
There were also no electoral rolls for the Maori seats. Electoral officials had always argued that it would be too difficult to register Maori voters (supposedly because of difficulties with language, literacy and proof of identity). Despite frequent allegations of electoral irregularities in the Maori seats, rolls were not used until the 1949 election.
In the 1950s and 1960s the National government occasionally talked of abolishing the Maori seats. Some politicians described special representation as a form of apartheid, like in South Africa. As most Maori continued to support their existence, no serious attempts were made to eliminate the seats.
In 1967 the law was changed to allow Maori to stand for election in European seats. It was not until 1975, when National's Ben Couch (for Wairarapa) and Rex Austin (for Awarua) were elected, that Maori were successful in general electorates, as European seats were now known. Prior to this, James Carroll had been the first and last Maori to hold a general seat, from 1893 to 1919.
Earlier in 1975 the Labour government had introduced a 'Maori electoral option', to be held alongside (or following) each census. This allowed electors of Maori descent to choose whether they enrolled in general or Maori seats. In 1976, however, the newly elected National government decided that the number of Maori seats was to remain fixed at four – whatever the outcome of the subsequent options.
The Royal Commission on the Electoral System, established in 1985, gave considerable thought to the future of the Maori seats. Its 1986 report concluded that separate seats had not helped Maori and that they would achieve better representation through a proportional party-list system. The commission therefore recommended that if its favoured mixed member proportional (MMP) system was adopted, the Maori seats should be abolished.
As the prospect of electoral reform became more real from 1992, some Maori began to rally to the defence of their separate system. Eventually, following strong representations from Maori organisations, the seats were retained under the new MMP system. Their number would now increase or decrease according to the results of the regular Maori electoral option.
Before the first MMP election in 1996 the number of Maori seats was increased, for the first time in their 129-year history, to five. Two more were added in 2002, and the total is set to remain at seven for the 2008 election.
The separate electoral system for Maori was essentially an 1860s solution to a supposedly temporary 'problem'. Its appropriateness and effectiveness have been the subject of debate ever since. Nevertheless, the Maori seats have survived to become one of the most distinctive features of New Zealand's electoral system.