Story: Nation and government

Page 5. The electoral system

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Eligibility to vote

All citizens and permanent residents aged 18 years or over who are not in gaol are eligible to vote in parliamentary elections. New Zealand has had universal adult suffrage since women were given the vote in 1893.

Eligibility to stand for Parliament

Only New Zealand citizens are eligible to sit in Parliament. Women were given the right in 1919.

The term of Parliament

Parliament is elected for a three-year term. The term can be cut short by the prime minister asking the governor-general to dissolve Parliament and call a ‘snap’ election.

The size of Parliament

In 2020 Parliament had 120 seats. There were 65 general electorate seats, seven Māori seats and 48 party list seats. The total number of seats can vary slightly, depending on the outcome of an election.

The voting system

For most of the 20th century New Zealand had a ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system. Candidates who gained a simple majority in single-member constituencies were returned to Parliament.

In a 1993 referendum, New Zealanders voted for mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation. Under this system each voter can cast two votes:

  • The first is the party vote – for the political party the voter wants to form the government. In general, the more party votes a party gets, the more members of Parliament it will have.
  • The second is an electorate vote – for the candidate the voter wants to be the local electorate member of Parliament. The candidate who gets the most votes is elected to be the MP for that electorate.

The total number of MPs a party has in the new Parliament is determined by the size of its party vote. For example, if a party gets 50% of the party vote it will be entitled to at least half the members of Parliament. If the party has not won in enough individual electorates to reach the number of MPs to which it is entitled, the number is made up from the ‘party list’ – a list of candidates, with the people the party most wants in Parliament at the top of the list. Each party draws up its list before the election.

A political party’s representation in Parliament can be made up of both electorate and party-list members or only of party-list members (if the party gains more than 5% of the party vote but does not win any individual electorates). It is entitled to a number of MPs corresponding to the percentage of the party vote which it has gained. If a party wins an electorate seat it is entitled to a number of MPs corresponding to its percentage of the party vote, even if it gains below 5% of the party vote. If a party does not win an electorate seat and gains less than 5% of the party vote, it is not entitled to any seats in Parliament.

The Māori seats

Māori have had separate representation in Parliament since 1867. Under the 1975 Māori electoral option, people of Māori descent can choose whether to vote in a general or a Māori electorate. In 2020 there were seven Māori seats. The number depends on how many voters opt to be on the Māori electoral roll.

Parties in Parliament

The party which has a majority in the House of Representatives forms the government. Under MMP it is less likely than under ‘first-past-the-post’ that a single party will have a majority. Coalition or minority governments have become usual.

The caucuses (members of Parliament belonging to a particular political party) play important roles but their powers, like those of cabinet, are governed by convention.

How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'Nation and government - The electoral system', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Sep 2016