‘Democracy only works if we participate’: Women across Te Papa talk about their voting experiences

Next year will mark the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Aotearoa. Given that we are in an election year, we thought it timely to think about voting so we have asked women across Te Papa to reflect on their experiences with voting.

Today is the second in a series of three posts featuring personal anecdotes and memories on the topic.

Victoria Esson, Manager National Services Te Paerangi

Victoria Essen

Victoria Essen, 2017. Photograph by Tim Onnes. Te Papa

I was excited to vote for the first time on 15 August 1987. As a 19-year-old idealistic university student I couldn’t wait to demonstrate my independence and vote in a way that did not echo the political views of my parents.

I was motivated by my strong belief in a nuclear-free New Zealand and wanted to see that stance made into policy. I had enrolled in my home town electorate rather than my university town – so headed home for the weekend and took myself off to the polling booth. I do remember being a bit worried I would stuff it up somehow and render my vote ineligible.

My Mum later instructed me not to talk about who I had voted for because that was “private”. I took her word for it and now realise she was probably trying to keeping the peace at home so that my Dad and I didn’t get into any heated political “discussions” that evening.

I was delighted by the ease of the voting process – and that my name was on the list: Yes!

Democracy only works if we participate. Even a small group of committed citizens can make real change in Aotearoa New Zealand – that has been the case in the past and I like to believe is still the case now. We have the power and the right to have political representation that reflects our aspirations and helps to build the communities we want to live in.

The power is in our hands – gifted to us by those thoughtful committed citizens of the past who believed it was important for everyone to be able to have their say. I’ll be voting this September, will you?

Sonya Withers, Tautai Pacific Arts Trust Intern

Sonya Withers

Sonya Withers, 2017. Photograph by Tim Onnes. Te Papa

I was a first-year design student who had just moved to Wellington, living in the rickety Basin hostel and sharing my bedroom floor with a cousin and their mate – both of whom had been kicked out of their flat.

We were skiving internet from my neighbours, streaming shows, when my cousin came back mentioning a small queue of people at the local school around the corner. Once we poked around we realised it was a polling booth and decided to take a break from the screen and put our two cents worth in.

Afterwards we found we had quite a bit in common politically. But also felt we should have made an effort to understand the parties’ policies better – we felt an ‘election’-themed party could be on the cards for the next one.

Migoto Eria, Manager Iwi Development, National Services Te Paerangi

Migoto Eria

Migoto Eria, 2017. Photograph by Tim Onnes. Te Papa

The first time I voted was up in Napier – it was at our local primary school hall with the large orange signs out on the road reading: ‘POLLING BOOTH’.

Mum was always very upfront with who I should vote for (or who everyone should be voting for) so I went into the voting environment on who I thought all Māori people were voting for.

I do remember wanting to see Māori names to vote for which seems superficial as I didn’t know who these people were, what they did, or what the purpose of voting for them was. Actually, in general I didn’t know what the difference was between the various parties except that mum said, ‘Our whānau have always voted for Labour’.

Message about voting: Find out more about candidates and parties. Even if you can’t make your mind up, make sure you vote anyway!

Kirstie Ross, Curator Modern New Zealand

Kirstie Ross

Kirstie Ross, 2017. Photograph by Tim Onnes. Te Papa

My first vote was historic. I turned 18 in June 1984, shortly before Robert ‘Piggy’ Muldoon boldly called the snap election. This serendipity meant I was not robbed of the chance to cast my vote in what was a game-changing election, as I would have, if my birthday had been later in the year.

My burning desire to vote, and my relief that I had squeaked in as an eligible voter, was fuelled by an awareness of Muldoon’s growing unpopularity, as well as my own contempt for his political and personal style. I was more than ready to do my civic and personal duty, which was to Vote Robert Muldoon Out of Office.

However, MMP was still more than a decade away. And so, because I was voting in a very safely held Labour seat, my vote didn’t make any real impact on the outcome of the election as it might have, had I cast my vote in a marginally-held electorate. But I felt very much, that the act of voting counted.

And of course, the ensuing historical, social, and economic significance of this election was still in the future. As the 1980s and 1990s ensued, a different kind of New Zealand began to take shape, due, in large part, to the economic philosophies and policies implemented by the Fourth Labour government after its landslide victory in July 1984 snap election.

The people spoke, in 1984, but do we always get what we voted for?

Ceramic mug featuring the likeness of Robert Muldoon's face

Toby jug (Robert Muldoon), circa 1980, New Zealand, by Robert Wallace. Purchased 2012. Te Papa (GH023163)

Stephanie Gibson, Curator Contemporary Life & Culture

Stephanie Gibson

Stephanie Gibson, 2017. Photograph by Tim Onnes. Te Papa

I can’t remember the first time I voted, but it was as soon as I could. It felt like a rite of passage.

I’m always really excited about it, like it’s a festive day out. I think about my vote weeks ahead, even though I’m pretty consistent with my choices. On voting day, as soon as I’ve had breakfast, I pick my voting place (depends largely on the nearest coffee).

I like everything about it – the serious but friendly staff, the way they carefully search for your name and cross it out, then standing behind the cardboard voting screen, ticking my choices with the fat orange felt pen, and then posting my vote in the box.

I’ve heard that if you vote the first two times that you’re eligible to, then you’re more likely to be a lifetime voter. That’s me.

Read the first blog

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