British voting restrictions were included in the 1852 Constitution Act, i.e. only adult male property owners with individual land titles could vote. Effectively, Māori contributed most of the revenue, through land sales and business, but had no representation. After the Māori Land Court was established in 1864, settler politicians feared that Māori men might soon acquire the right to vote because they would in time possess an individualized right to property, and that this might cause a political “imbalance” in some North Island electorates. It was thought the creation of three or four Māori seats would eliminate that threat by confining Māori voters to those seats.
In 1867 two more factors combined to create Māori seats. The government wanted to capture Māori support for its pacification programme, and the West Coast gold rush tipped the number of seats in favour of the South Island, with the possibility of the capital moving south. As a result, in 1867 northern MPs introduced a Bill which provided for Māori representatives – who might be European – elected by Māori men. The Bill proposed four seats, three in the North Island and one in the South, and it was accepted mainly because it preserved the distribution of seats between the North and South Islands. An amendment made it mandatory that the Māori representatives be Māori – largely because the South Islanders were unhappy at the prospect of three more northern Pākehā MPs.
If the number of seats had been proportional to population numbers – at the time there were 56,000 Māori and 171,000 Tauiwi – in a house of 70 members, 20 would have been Māori. The number of Māori seats remained the same until Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) was introduced in 1993. The number of Māori electorates is now determined from the Māori roll on the same population basis as the General roll, although population distribution means that Māori electorates are mostly much larger geographically than General, leading to further inequalities.