Story: Elections and campaigns

Politicians kissing babies and television advertisements trying to convince voters one party is better than another are all part of the run-up to an election. But, despite the increasing use of the internet and social media to woo voters, voter participation has been falling.

Story by Bryce Edwards
Main image: Party volunteers putting up election signs, 2008

Story summary

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Elections give people the opportunity to vote for the people they want to represent them in Parliament or on a local authority.

Parliamentary elections

New Zealand has held elections for members of Parliament since 1853. Until 1876 elections were held every five years. Since 1879 they have been every three years. People aged over 18 can vote.


From time to time referendums are held. These ask questions on which people vote, for example on whether military training should be compulsory. The government does not always have to do what most people voted for, but some referendums are binding.

Local government elections

New Zealand’s local councils hold elections every three years to elect mayors and councillors. Until their abolition in 2022, elections for district health boards were held at the same time. 

Election day

Since 1951 parliamentary elections have been held on a Saturday, usually in October or November. Most people go to a polling place to vote. Many cast advance votes in the weeks before the main day. Polling places are open throughout the country, mainly in community and church halls. ‘Special votes’ can be cast by people who are out of the country or can’t get to a polling place. In the 21st century, early voting became increasingly popular,

People’s votes are secret. They vote by ticking a form, which they then place in a closed ballot box.

No political advertising is allowed on election day, and no results can be released until the polls close (at 7 p.m.).

Most votes are counted on election night, and results are broadcast through the media. Many people spend the evening watching election results on television or online. In the past people often crowded around newspaper offices, which posted the results on billboards.

Election campaigning

The formal length of an election campaign is about a month, but in the 2000s political parties look for opportunities to promote themselves throughout the parliamentary term.

During early elections giving speeches at public meetings was the most important campaigning technique. First newspapers, then radio took over. By the 1970s television had become the major way for politicians to reach their audience. The internet became increasingly important in the 2000s, and social media in the 2010s..

Voter participation

In the 1960s around a quarter of New Zealand voters were members of a political party. This dropped significantly, and in the 2010s only about one in 50 were party members, and fewer volunteers helped with election campaigns than in the past.

Voter turnout

It is not a legal requirement to vote in New Zealand, but everyone over the age of 18 must be registered on the electoral roll. In the mid-20th century more than 90% of voters voted, The proportion dropped to about 75% in the 2000s but was over 80% in 2020.

Electoral finance

To attempt to keep elections fair, there are strict rules about how much political parties can spend on their election campaigns. Public funding is provided to support parties’ campaign advertising on television and radio.

How to cite this page:

Bryce Edwards, 'Elections and campaigns', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Bryce Edwards, published 20 June 2012, updated 1 July 2016