New Zealand elections

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Members of New Zealand's House of Representatives, commonly called Parliament, normally gain their seats in a nationwide general election. General elections normally occur at least every three years, and take place under the Mixed Member Proportional electoral system. The Chief Electoral Office and the Electoral Commission co-ordinate the electoral system.


Overview of elections


New Zealand general elections occur when the Prime Minister requests a dissolution of parliament and therefore a general election. Theoretically, this can happen at any time, although a convention exists whereby Prime Ministers do not call elections unless they have no reasonable alternative.

Elections always occur on Saturday, so as to ensure that work commitments do not inhibit people from voting. Voting takes place at various polling stations, generally established in schools, churches, or other such public places. The 2002 election made use of 6,560 such polling stations.

The voting process uses printed voting ballots, with voters marking their choices (one candidate vote and one party vote — see MMP) with an ink pen provided for their use. The voter then places the voting paper in a sealed ballot box. Voters can alternatively cast "special votes" if genuinely unable to attend a regular polling place (such as if they have travelled overseas or have impaired mobility).

Timings for elections

Prime Ministers have adhered to the three-year cycle with almost scrupulous regularity. Delayed elections last occurred in 1936 (due to the economic depression) and in 1943 (due to World War II). Notably early elections took place most recently in 1951 (after the Waterfront Strike). The elections of 1984 and of 2002 occurred a few months early in periods of governmental instability or potentil instability.

Tradition associates elections with November - give or take a few weeks. After disruptions to the 36-month cycle, Prime Ministers tend to strive to restore it with a November base.

The electoral roll

The electoral roll consists of a register of all eligible voters. All persons who meet the requirements for voting must by law register on the electoral roll, even if they do not intend to vote. The roll records the name and address of all voters, although one can apply for "unpublished" status on the roll in special circumstances, such as when having one's details printed in the electoral roll could threaten one's personal safety.


An electorate is a voting district. New Zealand currently has sixty-nine electorates (including seven Maori electorates, reserved for people of Maori ethnicity who choose to place themselves on a separate electoral roll). All electorates have roughly the same number of people in them — the electoral Commission periodically reviews and alters electorate boundaries to preserve this approximate balance. The number of people in each electorate depends on geography — the South Island, the less populous of the country's two main islands, has 16 guaranteed electorates, and so the number of people per electorate equals the population of the South Island divided by 16. From this, the Commission determines the number of North Island and Maori seats, which may fluctuate accordingly.

Vote counting and announcement

Polling Places close at 7.00pm on election day. The process of the counting of the votes by polling officials then begins. Results (at this stage provisional ones) go to a central office in the capital, Wellington, for announcement as they arrive. In recent years, a dedicated official website, "" has provided live election result updates. Provisonal counting of ordinary votes generally completes on the night of the election, but special votes (see "Voting") can take longer than this, occasionally producing surprise upsets. The final results of the election become official when confirmed by the Chief Electoral Officer.

History of voting in New Zealand

The New Zealand Constitution Act

The first national elections in New Zealand took place in 1853, the year after the British government passed the New Zealand Constitution Act. This measure granted limited self-rule to the settlers in New Zealand, who had grown increasingly frustrated with the colonial authorities (particularly the nearly unlimited power of the Governor). The Constitution Act established a bicameral parliament, with the lower house (the House of Representatives) to be elected every five years.

Initially, the system set standards for suffrage relatively high. To vote, one needed to:

  • Be male
  • Be a British subject
  • Be at least 21 years old
  • Own land worth at least 50, or pay a certain amount in yearly rental (10 for farmland or a city house, or 5 for a rural house)
  • Not be serving a criminal sentence for treason, a felony, or another serious offence

In theory, this would have allowed Maori men to vote, but electoral regulations excluded communally-held land from counting towards the property qualification (quite a common restriction in electoral systems of the time). As such, many Maori (most of whom lived in accordance with traditional customs of land ownership) could not vote. Historians debate whether or not the system deliberately excluded Maori in this way, but neither side appeared to worry unduly about the issue; settlers saw the "uncivilized" Maori as a potential voting bloc with the numerical strength to outvote Europeans; while Maori had little interest in a "settler parliament" that they saw as having little relevance to them.

Despite the exclusion of Maori and of women, New Zealand's voting franchise appeared highly liberal when compared to many other countries at the time. At the time of the passsing of the Constitution Act, an estimated three-quarters of the adult male European population in New Zealand had the right to vote. This contrasts with the situation in Britain, where the equivalent figure approximated to a fifth of the adult male population.

Goldminers and the vote

In 1860 the franchise system extended slightly, waiving the property qualification for anyone who possessed a miner's licence. This aimed to enfranchise participants in the Central Otago goldrush, who often did not own valuable land but who nevertheless ranked as "important".

The Maori seats

1867 saw the establisment of four Maori seats, enabling Maori to vote without needing to meet the property requirements. Its supporters intended this measure as a temporary solution, as a general belief existed that Maori would soon abandon traditional customs about land ownership. Soon, however, the seats became permanent. While some have seen the establishment of Maori seats as an example of progressive legislation, the effect did not always prove as satisfactory as expected. While the seats did increase Maori participation in politics, the relative size of the Maori population of the time vis vis pakeha would have warranted approximately 15 seats, not four. Because Maori could vote only in Maori seats, and the number of Maori seats remained fixed, Maori stayed effectively locked into under-representation for decades.

The secret ballot

Initially, voters informed a polling officer orally of their chosen candidate. In 1870, the secret ballot came into use, whereby each voter would mark their choice on a printed ballot and place the ballot in a sealed box. (This system essentially continues in use today.) The change occurred to reduce the chances of voters feeling intimidated, embarrassed, or pressured about their vote, and to reduce the chances of corruption.

Abolition of the property requirement

After considerable controversy, Parliament decided in 1879 to remove the requirement of property ownership. This allowed anyone who met the other qualifications to participate in the electoral process. As the restrictions on suffrage in New Zealand excluded fewer voters than in many other countries, this change did not have the same effect as it would have had in (for example) Britain, but it nevertheless proved significant. In particular, it eventually gave rise to "working class" politicians, and eventually (in 1916) to the Labour Party.

Women's suffrage

New Zealand women finally gained the right to vote with the passage of a bill by the Legislative Council in 1893. The House of Representatives (then the elected lower house) had passed such a bill several times previously, but for the first time the appointed Legislative Council did not block it.

The growth of women's suffrage in New Zealand largely resulted from the broad political movement led by Kate Sheppard, the country's most famous suffragette. Inside parliament, politicians such as John Hall, Robert Stout, Julius Vogel, William Fox, and John Ballance supported the movement. When Ballance became Premier, and founded the Liberal Party, many believed that suffrage was imminent, but attempts to pass a suffrage bill were repeatedly blocked in the Legislative Council, which had been stacked with conservative politicians by Ballance's outgoing predecessor, Harry Atkinson.

When Ballance suddenly died in office, he was replaced by Richard Seddon, who, although a member of Ballance's Liberal Party, opposed suffrage. It appeared, therefore, that suffrage would not be granted. Despite Seddon's opposition, sufficient strength was assembled in the House of Representatives to pass the bill. When it arrived in the Legislative Council, several previously hostile members were sufficiently angered at Seddon's "underhand" behaviour while opposing the bill that they voted in favour. This was enough to ensure that it passed, and the bill was signed into law on 19 September. In the election later that year, women were able to vote freely.

New Zealand can claim to be the first country in the world to have granted women's suffrage, although the accuracy of this depends on the definitions used.

Lowering the voting age

For most of New Zealand's early history, it was necessary to be at least 21 years old to vote. At times, voting rights were temporarily extended to people younger than this, such as in World War I and World War II (where serving military personnel were allowed to vote regardless of age). Later, the voting age was reduced further; in 1969, it was lowered to 20, and in 1974 to 18. Much of this was as the result of increased student interest in politics due to the Vietnam War protests.

Abolition of the citizenship requirement

In 1975 the voting franchise was extended to all permanent residents of New Zealand, regardless of whether or not they possessed citizenship. It is not, however, possible for someone to be elected to parliament if they are not a citizen. One party-list candidate in the 2002 election was not able to assume her position as a member of parliament because she did not meet that criterion.

The switch to MMP

Apart from a brief period from 1908 to 1913, when runoff voting was used, New Zealand used the first-past-the-post electoral system until 1996. Gradually multi-member electorates in urban areas were replaced by single member electorates and single-member first-past-the-post electorates became the norm for most of the 20th century.

Towards the end of the 20th century, however, voter dissatisfaction with the political process was growing. In particular, the 1978 election and the 1981 election both delivered outcomes that many deemed unsatisfactory; the opposition Labour Party won the highest number of votes, but Robert Muldoon's governing National Party won more seats. This was a result of the first-past-the-post electoral system. Subsequently, voter discontent grew even greater when both Labour and National were perceived to have broken their election promises by implementing the policies of "Rogernomics". This left many people wanting to support alternative parties, but the electoral system made it difficult for smaller parties to realistically compete with either of the two large ones — for example, the Social Credit Party had gained 21% of the vote in 1981, but received only two seats.

In response to public anger, the Labour Party established a Royal Commission on the Electoral System, which delivered its results in 1986. Both Labour and National had expected the Commission to propose only minor reforms, but instead it recommended the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system already used in Germany. Neither Labour nor National supported this idea, and National chose to embarrass Labour by pointing out their lack of enthusiasm for their own Commission's report. National, attempting to seize the upper ground, promised a referendum on the matter. Labour, unwilling to see itself outdone, promised the same. As such, both parties were committed to a holding a referendum on a policy that they did not want.

When National won the next election, it agreed (under pressure from voters) to hold a referendum. This began the process of New Zealand electoral reform, which eventually resulted in the adoption of MMP.

Results of previous elections

Template:New Zealand elections

General elections

The following is a table of all general elections in New Zealand (note that elections for Maori seats were initially held separately from elections for general seats). Displayed are the dates of the elections, the officially recorded voter turnout, and the number of seats in parliament at the time. On the right are the number of seats won by the four most significant parties in New Zealand's history (the Liberal Party and the Reform Party, which later merged to form the National Party, and the Labour Party), as well as the number won by other candidates (either independents or members of smaller political parties).

Term Election Date(s) Official turnout Total seats Liberals Reform Labour Other
1st 1853 general election 4 July–1 October Unrecorded 37 - - - 37
2nd 1855 general election 28 October–28 December Unrecorded 37 - - - 37
3rd 1860-1861 general election 12 December–28 March Unrecorded 53 - - - 53
4th 1866 general election 12 February–6 April Unrecorded 70 - - - 70
5th 1871 general election 14 January–23 February Unrecorded 78 - - - 78
6th 1875-1876 general election 20 December–29 January Unrecorded 88 - - - 88
7th 1879 general election 28 August–15 September 66.5% 88 - - - 88
8th 1881 general election 9 December 66.5% 95 - - - 95
9th 1884 general election 22 June 60.6% 95 - - - 95
10th 1887 general election 26 September 67.1% 95 - - - 95
11th 1890 general election 5 December 80.4% 74 - - - 74
12th 1893 general election 28 November 75.3% 74 51 - - 23
13th 1896 general election 4 December 76.1% 74 39 - - 35
14th 1899 general election 6 December 77.6% 74 49 - - 25
15th 1902 general election 25 November 76.7% 80 47 - - 33
16th 1905 general election 6 December 83.3% 80 58 - - 22
17th 1908 general election 17 Nov, 24 Nov, 1 Dec 79.8% 80 50 - - 30
18th 1911 general election 7 December, 14 December 83.5% 80 33 37 - 10
19th 1914 general election 10 December 84.7% 80 33 41 - 6
20th 1919 general election 17 December 80.5% 80 21 47 8 4
21st 1922 general election 7 December 88.7% 80 22 37 17 4
22nd 1925 general election 4 November 90.9% 80 11 55 12 2
23rd 1928 general election 14 November 88.1% 80 27 27 19 7
24th 1931 general election 2 December 83.3% 80 19* 28* 24 9
25th 1935 general election 27 November 90.8% 80 7* 10* 53 10
26th 1938 general election 15 October 92.9% 80 25 53 2
27th 1943 general election 25 September 82.8% 80 34 45 1
28th 1946 general election 24 November 93.5% 80 38 42 0
29th 1949 general election 30 November 93.5% 80 46 34 0
30th 1951 general election 27 December 89.1% 80 50 30 0
31st 1954 general election 13 November 91.4% 80 45 35 0
32nd 1957 general election 30 November 92.9% 80 39 41 0
33rd 1960 general election 26 November 89.8% 80 46 34 0
34th 1963 general election 30 November 89.6% 80 45 35 0
35th 1966 general election 26 November 86.0% 80 44 35 1
36th 1969 general election 29 November 88.9% 84 45 39 0
37th 1972 general election 25 November 89.1% 87 32 55 0
38th 1975 general election 29 November 82.5% 87 55 32 0
39th 1978 general election 25 November 69.2% 92 51 40 1
40th 1981 general election 28 November 91.4% 92 47 43 2
41st 1984 general election 14 July 93.7% 95 37 56 2
42nd 1987 general election 15 August 89.1% 97 40 57 0
43rd 1990 general election 27 October 85.2% 97 67 29 1
44th 1993 general election 6 November 85.2% 99 50 45 4
45th 1996 general election 12 October 88.3% 120 44 37 39
46th 1999 general election 27 November 84.1% 120 39 49 32
47th 2002 general election 27 July 77.0% 120 27 52 41
48th 2005 general election

* The United Party (a regrouping of the Liberals) and the Reform Party contested the 1931 and 1935 elections as a coalition, but did not formally merge as the National Party until 1936.


See New Zealand by-elections.

See also

External links


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