The Māori electorates were introduced in 1867 under the Māori Representation Act. They were created in order to give Māori a more direct say in parliament. The first Māori elections were held in the following year during the term of the 4th New Zealand Parliament. The electorates were intended as a temporary measure lasting five years but were extended in 1872 and made permanent in 1876. In all despite numerous attempts to disestablish Māori electorates, they continue to form a distinct part of the New Zealand political landscape.
Māori electorates operate much as do general electorates, but have as electors people who are Māori or of Māori descent, and who choose to place their names on a separate electoral roll rather than on the "general roll".
There are two features of the Māori electorates that make them distinct from the general electorates. First, there are a number of skills that are essential for candidates to have in order to engage with their constituencies and ensure a clear line of accountability to representing the 'Māori voice'. This includes proficiency in Te Reo Māori, knowledge of tikanga Māori, whakawhanaungatanga skills and confidence on the marae. Second, the geographical size of the Māori electoral boundaries vary significantly from the general electorates. Five to 18 general electorates into any one Māori electorate.
Māori electoral boundaries are superimposed over the electoral boundaries used for general electorates; thus every part of New Zealand simultaneously belongs both in a general seat and in a Māori seat. Shortly after each census all registered Māori electors have the opportunity to choose whether they are included on the Māori or General electorate rolls. Each five-yearly Māori Electoral Option determines the number of Māori electorates for the next one or two elections.
The establishment of Māori electorates came about in 1867 during the term of the 4th Parliament with the Māori Representation Act, drafted by Napier MP Donald McLean. Parliament passed the Act only after lengthy debate, it was passed during a period of warfare between the Government and several North Island Māori tribes, and was seen as a way to reduce conflict between the races in future. The act originally agreed to set up four electorates specially for Māori three in the North Island and one covering the whole South Island. The four seats were a fairly modest concession on per capita basis at the time.