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 first in a series of three posts featuring personal anecdotes and memories on the topic.
Helen Curran, Exhibition Experience Developer
The first time I voted was in the 1999 general election, one warm November Saturday after exams had ended. I was in my second year at Otago Uni and living at home to save money. The indignity of that was one reason I cast my party vote for the now-defunct Alliance Party, who promised – and then, in coalition with Labour, rolled out – interest-free student loans.
That evening I rode through the dark East Taieri plains to someone’s parents’ living room and watched red balloons fall from the ceiling as Helen Clark romped to victory. A victory, too, for women. We were a bunch of scarfies and yet we felt elated, important. Powerful.
They say you’re more likely to become a problem gambler if you win the first time you have a flutter. I guess I became a problem voter in that moment. Democracy was addictive.
And in ways I wasn’t yet fully aware of, I was lucky – I had never felt disenfranchised, never felt that I wouldn’t see myself reflected in some way in the parliament of the day.
This year, 450,000 eligible New Zealanders are not enrolled to vote. More than half of them are under 30. Questions of power and representation and hope are all at play here, just as they were for the suffragists 125 years ago.
Since that first election, I’ve cast my vote on the way back from a dreary, cold-fingered shift on a Queenstown ski field and ducked out from my Aro Valley bakery job to the hall across the road – still my favourite place to vote. I’ve uploaded papers from a stifling Toulouse summer, and hunted down the polling station within Wellington’s cavernous Overseas Passenger Terminal, converted now to luxury apartments.
I can chart not just the development of my political beliefs but the path of my life from those makeshift outposts of democracy, painted community-centre beige. The cardboard booths, the orange markers, the strange, public seriousness.
Election Day still makes me feel jittery, on edge. And in some hopeful way, powerful.
Matariki Williams, Curator Mātauranga Māori
My first chance to vote was in 2005, and that night I went to an election party in the Aro Valley which was filled to the brim with political science students relentlessly posturing on how much they knew.
When the results rolled in, there was a huge surge of energy – it was like the whole valley had had a fire lit under them with a mixture of elation and relief.
At that time I was voting in the Waiariki electorate, as I had always believed that voting on the Māori roll was about voting for a candidate that you think would best support your iwi. It was also the first election for the Māori Party and it felt like the platform for kaupapa Māori would continue to expand, again I felt the mixture of elation and relief.
It’s been a long 12 years since then and the political landscape has changed markedly – this election, in particular, has been a rollercoaster. But there is one memory I cannot shake, the time when the Electoral Commission came to my high school and signed us all up.
As a Māori woman, my presence in various situations can often feel like I’m there because someone has a box to tick. Enrolling, making the choice to be on the Māori roll, ticking the box myself, still fills me with pride.
Judith Jones, Visitor Services Host
The sun slants in from the high windows of the hall. I’ve come to watch my dad vote.
We’re at the front of the line at last, the woman finds his name in the big book and rules a mark across it, so no one else can pretend to be him. You only get one vote. You have to think about it.
We go into the voting booth. I’m about 10, inside the democratic process for the first time. Breathless with the importance of it all. All over the country, people are voting.
Later, we lay out the newspaper pages, listen to the radio, and record the results. Our candidate wins by thousands of votes. So many! Which was yours, I ask. We don’t know, my dad says. It could have been the one to make the difference. Let’s say, mine was the one that took our man over the line.
That’s why I vote – because, amongst all those votes, one vote is going to be The One, the one that gets what I value over the line. And who’s to say it won’t be mine.
Amy Cosgrove, Loans & Acquisitions Adviser
My first time voting was in the 2008 election. I was 20. I remember going to the Lower Hutt Library and there being a lot of people there waiting in line, many of whom were elderly. I went by myself, politics and voting wasn’t really something I talked to my friends about at the time. I’m probably the complete opposite now.
Coming up to the election, it is all I seem to talk about. I remember feeling a mixture of excitement and uncertainty going into the little cardboard booth and ticking the paper. I had felt like there was a lot of build up to my first time voting and it was over pretty quickly. My flatmates and I got together and watched the election results coming in that night. We were all pretty ambivalent about the result.
I’ve voted twice more since then and worked as a voting place manager at the last election and I think regardless of the result, exercising your right to vote is really important.
I feel pretty strongly about voting, especially being a woman and knowing what the suffragists went through to get us the vote.
I know a lot of people feel disillusioned with politics, especially with all the craziness going on overseas right now. But it’s important to remember that under MMP, all votes count towards the make-up of our government.
So you might feel your vote is insignificant in the grand scheme of things but it really isn’t. Your vote could make all the difference.
Mary Smart, Liaison Librarian
I cannot remember my first time voting – it was a long time ago! I do believe in voting and agree with Australia in having compulsory voting as voter turnout can be very low if left to the individual to decide whether to vote or not. When we lived in Australia we became Australian citizens as we both believed it important to have a say and vote.
I think the process we have in New Zealand works well if you have registered and your details do not change. You don’t have to do anything but turn up at the booth to vote – that makes it easy. Sometimes the polling booths feel a bit too public.
Our great aunts (Ellen Curran and Mary O’Sullivan) signed the Suffrage Petition in Dunedin and we’re looking forward to seeing it in its new place at National Library. We’re very proud of them. It’s wonderful that you can now search online the names of those who signed the 1893 petition to Parliament.