Milestones: History of the right to vote in New Zealand regarding age

How young, legally, is an adult in New Zealand? In general, the law states that a person does not attain "full age" until reaching the age of 20 years. However, this question has a different answer in the law depending on the context. Here are some examples of different legal ages for adult responsibilities:

  • paid work: International child labour standards, fought for by women's groups all around the world, set the minimum age for light work at 13 years, general employment at 15 and hazardous work at 18. In New Zealand there is no general minimum age for employment, but at 16 a worker can qualify as an adult worker (or "starting-out worker). And, there are rules around the times young people can work and the types of work they can do. For example, people under the age of 16 legally cannot be allowed by employers to work in hazardous conditions (e.g., manufacturing or timber industry), work before 6 a.m. or after 10 p.m - and their jobs must not prevent or interfere with school attendance. Minimum wage compliance kicks in at the age of 16 (with some weeks of training probation first).
  • sex and marriage: Before 1896 the age of consent was 12. This meant that children at the age of 12 legally became adults, capable of making decisions such as having consensual sex or getting married. In reality, of course this allowed men seeking unpaid labour for housekeeping and sex work could take advantage of young girls. Incest was not a crime until 1900. Through the continued petitioning of groups such as the WCTU NZ the age of consent was raised to 14 for girls in 1889 and finally to 16 in 1896 regardless of gender - an age at which New Zealand society felt that a child could make life-long decisions for themselves. Since the passage of the Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986, a teen 12 years or older can be prosecuted for a consensual relationship with a teen under 16 (both parties if both are 12 years or older) even though "age of consent" is 16. If the charge is sexual violation, age does not enter into the decision. New Zealand statutory rape law is violated when an individual has consensual sexual contact with a person under age 16. The age of consent is raised to age 18 if the offender is in a guardianship role. A defense exists if the sex offender reasonably took precautions and believed the victim to be 16 or over.
  • crime: you can be held criminally responsible at 10 years of age if you kill someone, and at 12 be responsible before the law for other serious crimes. At 14 you are no longer a "child" and can be held responsible for breaking any law.
  • other rights that are attained at the age of 16:
    - apply for a learners drivers license
    - decide which parent you want to live
    - agree to, or refuse, medical treatment
    - choose to leave school
    - keep/change one's own name
    - make a will
    - apply for a firearms licence
    - get an adult passport

Here are some milestones in New Zealand's history of voting rights focusing the criteria of age:

1852 Constitution Act: only males over the age of 21 who owned, leased or rented property of a certain value could vote. (See more on this at

1867 Māori Representation Act established four Māori seats in the House of Representatives and in so doing extended the franchise to all Māori males aged 21 and over. (See more on this at

1876 All women ratepayers at the age of 21 can vote locally.

1879 Universal suffrage for all males at the age of 21.

1893 Electoral Act extended universal suffrage for women at the age of 21 (See more on this at

1969 Voting age in New Zealand was reduced to 20.

1974 Voting age reduced to 18.


"The 42 Rights of a Child," UNICEF Aotearoa

"Legal Ages," Youth Law Aotearoa.

"Should the Voting Age be Lowered to 16?" New Zealand History

"Voting," New Zealand History

To read more articles from The Circular (March-April 2023) issue 640, click on the tag below.
Tags for Circular Issue 640


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