General elections have normally taken place in October or November in the third year of the parliamentary term. Elections have not always occurred on a single day – the first election of 1853 took place in different electorates between July and October. Since 1881 a single election day has been used for all the general (non-Māori) electorates. Initially this was a weekday, but since 1951 elections for both Māori and general seats have been held on the same day: a Saturday.
Going to the polls
On election day polling places are open for voting throughout the country, in places such as community and school halls, from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. In 2014 there were 2,568 polling places. Votes are also cast at overseas polling booths and by post. By the 2010s many New Zealanders were casting advance votes prior to polling day. In 2020, 68% of votes were cast in advance.
In the mid-19th century there were few polling places and no postal voting. Bribery of voters, drunken rowdiness, arguments and double voting were all part of the day.
Initially, progress results were released before the polls closed. A desperate candidate who drummed up sufficient support could swing the election if his voters arrived in time. Although the release of progress results was outlawed in 1858, the practice did not stop for some time after that.
Certain rules regulate conduct on election day. Scrutineers representing the candidates are allowed to observe the process from within the polling place. But all campaigning – and media coverage of it – must cease. Generally, election days have become very orderly affairs and complaints of serious electoral violations have been rare.
The secret ballot has been a central feature of elections since 1871. Those who favoured it believed it would prevent intimidation or treating (candidates bribing electors with food and drink). Those who opposed it argued that voting was not an individual right but a trust exercised on behalf of the community – open voting meant that those who voted were accountable to the disenfranchised.
Until 1990 voters took a printed ballot paper into a private booth and crossed out the names of candidates other than the one for whom they were voting. Since then, voters have put a tick beside their electoral choice. Voters put their own paper into a closed ballot box.
At early elections a show of hands, followed by verbal voting if an unsuccessful candidate demanded it, was commonly used. The voter would tell voting officials their choice and it was recorded for everyone to see. In 1860 one newspaper even published the details of how every elector had voted. The secret ballot was made compulsory in 1890 for general electorates, but not until 1938 for the Māori electorates.
Most votes are counted on the day of the election, with some special votes counted later. During the evening preliminary results are announced, and the winners of electorates are usually unofficially declared. Especially since the introduction of the mixed-member proportional voting system in 1996, it has not always been clear on the night which party or parties would form the new government.
Election night has always been a significant event, with much of the population following the results as they are announced in the media. Until television became dominant, newspaper offices were often the centres of election night interest. Crowds gathered to watch the results as they were posted up on outdoor hoardings.