Once established, the Māori electoral system suffered from official neglect. Māori elections were certainly very different. Up until 1951 Māori voted on a different day from Europeans, often several weeks later; from 1919 to 1949 the Māori 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 Māori. 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 Māori seats. Electoral officials had always argued that it would be too difficult to register Māori voters (supposedly because of difficulties with language, literacy and proof of identity). Despite frequent allegations of electoral irregularities in the Māori seats, rolls were not used until the 1949 election.
In the 1950s and 1960s the National government occasionally talked of abolishing the Māori seats. Some politicians described special representation as a form of apartheid, like in South Africa. As most Māori continued to support their existence, no serious attempts were made to eliminate the seats.
In 1967 the law was changed to allow Māori 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 Māori were successful in general electorates, as European seats were now known. Prior to this, James Carroll had been the first and last Māori to hold a general seat, from 1893 to 1919.
Earlier in 1975 the Labour government had introduced a 'Māori electoral option', to be held alongside (or following) each census. This allowed electors of Māori descent to choose whether they enrolled in general or Māori seats. In 1976, however, the newly elected National government decided that the number of Māori 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 Māori seats. Its 1986 report concluded that separate seats had not helped Māori 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 Māori seats should be abolished.
As the prospect of electoral reform became more real from 1992, some Māori began to rally to the defence of their separate system. Eventually, following strong representations from Māori organisations, the seats were retained under the new MMP system. Their number would now increase or decrease according to the results of the regular Māori electoral option.
Before the first MMP election in 1996 the number of Māori 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 Māori was essentially an 1860s solution to a supposedly temporary 'problem'. Its appropriateness and effectiveness have been the subject of debate ever since. Nevertheless, the Māori seats have survived to become one of the most distinctive features of New Zealand's electoral system.