One voice, one vote, that's democracy. Well, sort of. There's a little more to a successful democracy than just the formal process of voting.
Underneath the ballot box, there's a ground. Physically, of course, but I mean something more.
That ballot box is located in a place. That place has a history, it will have shared and contested cultural values.
It will also have an economic system, a way of organising how things get done and who owns what.
The ground beneath a ballot box is constantly shifting. Small tremors mostly, but sometimes seismic shifts that are revolutionary.
In 1892, that ground didn't allow women in New Zealand to vote in a general election. The following year it did.
Changing values, usually hard fought for by a minority and then finally supported by a majority, can change how democracy works.
In 1994, we went from a first-past-the-post system based on electoral seats to MMP. The previous method of electing representatives to Parliament, because of how seats were drawn up on a map, gave greater power to rural voters.
It could be argued that MMP now gives more power to urban voters over the concerns of rural people, because there's simply more of them.
The foundations of our democracy (it's still early days) have seen shifts and rebalancing in response to social concerns and old-fashioned activism.
That process is never likely to end. To wish democratic institutions to remain static and unresponsive to changing circumstances and changing values is counter to the spirit of democracy.
And so to the current hot issue of Māori wards at the local council level.
Opponents have an understandable position, that democracy should be blind to ethnicity.
That sounds fine on the surface, but it ignores the ground, the history of shared and contested values which makes Northland, or Tai Tokerau, the place it is.
Our place is shaped by a process of colonisation that saw most of the land alienated from hapū and iwi control and transferred to individual property owners, overwhelmingly Pākehā.
The migration of Europeans created a new majority population, with new institutions and new values.
Today, people who identify as Māori are a minority, even if a substantial one in Tai Tokerau.
Whether it's conscious or unconscious racism, or just that people are more likely to vote for people who are similar to them, few Māori have been elected on to councils.
This hasn't stopped generations of Northland Māori asserting their right to have their voices heard.
That so many of Northland's elected councillors have voted for Māori wards is due to the shifting ground beneath the ballot box.
It's not a nullification of the principles of voting. Democracy isn't under threat, it's just that the rules are being challenged and potentially upgraded to a new model.
For Māori who wish to see Māori wards and Māori councillors representing them, the reasons for change are self-evident.
For the rest of us, it's about considering the human rights at issue, which can allow us to sympathetically accede to a subtle shift in the democratic process.
Our acceptance of Māori wards acknowledges that colonisation alienated Māori from the control of their land and resources, and disadvantaged them through overt and unconscious racism.
Guaranteeing Māori representation on councils would have some small impact on addressing historical wrongs and current inequalities. And it is perhaps more symbolic than anything else, given how powerless local bodies are compared to central government.
There's no question of introducing more Māori wards than the urban and rural wards that currently make up our councils. So in that respect, the ability of non-Māori to have a natural majority isn't revoked.
But the more interesting scenario is the partnerships that could emerge between Māori councillors (and their Māori constituency) and ordinary hard-working Northlanders.
I've no doubt Māori wards will bolster the voice of human rights, economic equality and environmental protection. Those are values that many Northlanders, regardless of ethnicity, can support.
And to my mind, Māori wards are more democratic than consultation. That process is largely driven from the top, with little public disclosure.
Far better, I believe, to have elected Māori representatives stating and arguing their political views publicly, with their votes on important issues widely known.
That way Māori councillors, like all councillors, are accountable and subject to the full glare of public scrutiny through the media.
If Māori wards meant less "consultation" and more public debate and leadership from articulate and committed Māori councillors, then far from democracy being weakened, it will be strengthened.
Māori wards won't be the end of democracy, they're a slight shifting of the ground we stand on, with a few more people being given something to hold on to that helps them stand tall in a fast-changing world.
• Northern Advocate columnist Vaughan Gunson writes about life and politics.