An electoral system – or voting system – is the way votes are converted into seats. The seats can be on the board of directors of a company, on a parish council, in Parliament, or on any other body to which people are elected rather than appointed.
A number of voting systems have been used to elect members of Parliament in New Zealand. Local body elections – for city councils and district health boards, for example – have also used a variety of voting systems.
Following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, between Māori and the British Crown, in 1840, New Zealand became a British colony. A little more than a decade later Britain installed a system of representative government in New Zealand. The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, which was passed by the British Parliament, established the New Zealand Parliament – formally called the General Assembly. This had two chambers: the Legislative Council, an upper house which was made up of appointed representatives; and the House of Representatives, the lower house, whose members were elected. The Legislative Council was abolished in 1951.
Members of Parliament were initially elected for five-year terms. Since 1881 the parliamentary term has been three years, with some exceptions (the 1914–19, 1931–35, and 1938–43 Parliaments had longer terms as a result of the First World War, the 1930s economic depression and the Second World War respectively).
The existence of a country quota – deliberately having a smaller number of voters in rural electorates than in urban electorates – was a feature of New Zealand’s electoral laws (regardless of the type of voting system being used) from 1881 to 1945. One city member of Parliament angrily suggested that the 1889 Representation Act Amendment Bill should be renamed ‘A Bill to give a Large Increase of Representation to Land, to Cattle and to Sheep.’1
The electoral system initially adopted for the New Zealand House of Representatives was based on procedures used for the House of Commons in the UK, where there were both single-member electorates (electorates returning just one MP) and multi-member electorates (electorates returning more than one MP). In all instances, the successful candidates were those with the most votes.
Both the single-member and multi-member districts were instances of plurality voting systems, because candidates did not need a majority of the votes (more than half) to be elected. They required only a plurality – more votes than any of the other candidates.
For New Zealand’s first parliamentary election the country was divided into 24 electorates, 11 of which were multi-member. Thus, New Zealand’s first general election, held in October 1853, utilised two voting systems: the first-past-the-post system in single-member districts and block voting in multi-member districts (where voters were given a number of votes equal to the number of vacancies).
Multi-member districts continued to be an intermittent feature of parliamentary elections in New Zealand from 1853 until 1902. In the 1871 general election, for instance, there were 22 single-member electorates and four two-member electorates in the North Island. The South Island had 40 single-member electorates and two two-member electorates.
Multi-member districts were predominantly used in cities in 19th-century New Zealand. In 1871, for example, the multi-member seats included Auckland City West, City of Wellington, City of Nelson and City of Dunedin. Franklin and Wairarapa were the only non-urban multi-member districts.
The Māori electorates – introduced in 1867 – were always single-member districts.
The first-past-the-post voting system – plurality voting in single-member districts – had two widely perceived advantages. First, it was easy to understand how a winner was chosen – the successful candidate simply had to have more votes than any other candidate. The winner did not have to have an absolute majority (50% plus one) of the votes. Second, under this system it was likely that one party would receive an absolute majority of the seats in the House of Representatives.
Until the late 19th century New Zealand’s Parliament didn’t have formal political parties. However, parties dominated Parliament from 1890 onwards. The first party to be in government, the Liberal Party, won more than 50% of the votes – as well as an absolute majority of the seats in Parliament – in 1890, 1893, 1899, 1902 and 1905. (In 1896 it won 46% of the votes, but more than half the seats.)
By 1905 New Zealand’s parliamentary electoral system was based solely on single-member districts. The City Single Electorates Act 1903 abolished the last four multi-member seats, and for the next 90 years each voter had only one vote in each election – for one candidate in their electorate.
After 1906 the formerly monolithic Liberal Party looked somewhat shaky. The party had been in power for 15 years and following the death of Premier Richard Seddon there were party discipline problems, partly manifested in a scourge of surplus candidates all claiming to be Liberals of one type or another standing for election to Parliament. In 1907–8 the Liberals were defeated in two by-elections by candidates who received less than 50% of the votes cast. The new Liberal leader, Joseph Ward, resurrected an idea Seddon had promoted without success – replacing New Zealand’s first-past-the-post voting system with a two-round electoral system, also known as a second-ballot system.
In order to be elected under this system, a candidate had to have an absolute majority of the votes cast. If no candidate won more than half the votes, then a run-off election between the two leading candidates – a second ballot – was held a short while later. The two-round system was used for two parliamentary general elections – in 1908 and 1911 (and for by-elections held between 1908 and 1913) – before being abolished.
By the time of the 1914 general election New Zealand had reverted to the first-past-the-post system.
Electors in New Zealand’s first-past-the-post parliamentary elections used to be given a list of candidates in alphabetical order. From 1870 until 1989 voters were instructed to strike out the names of all the candidates other than the one for whom they wished to vote. Although crossing off the names of candidates that voters did not like may have been psychologically satisfying, it was – internationally – a most unusual way of voting. In 1990 the law was changed to enable voters to put a tick alongside the name of the person for whom they wanted to vote.
First-past-the-post electoral systems over-reward larger parties – especially the winning party – in terms of the seats that they win. For example, the Reform Party won more than half the seats in the House of Representatives on three occasions (1914, 1919 and 1925), but never reached 47% of the votes cast.
Some argue that the system’s favouring of larger parties is a strength rather than a weakness, as it encourages strong government by single parties.
The 1928 election saw three parties – United (a repackaged version of the Liberal Party), Reform and Labour – each get between 25% and 35% of the votes, and none of them won more than one-third of the seats in the House of Representatives.
After that, for a period of more than 60 years – from 1931 through to and including 1993 – first-past-the-post always delivered an absolute majority of the seats in Parliament to one party (or, in 1931, to two parties, United and Reform, that had jointly contested the election).
In 1956 the National and Labour parties rewrote the country’s electoral laws. MPs unanimously agreed that electoral district boundaries should be redrawn after every five-yearly census and that the number of people in each electorate should vary from the mean by no more than plus or minus 5%. The National Party compromised by agreeing that rural electorates would have the same population as city seats. The Labour Party compromised by agreeing to define the electoral population as including men, women and children.
The golden era of the first-past-the-post electoral system in New Zealand was 1938 to 1951. In four of the five general elections held during those years, a single party (Labour in 1938 and 1946, National in 1949 and 1951) not only won an absolute majority of the seats in Parliament, but also won more than half the votes. The exception was the 1943 election, when a breakaway group led by former Labour MP John A. Lee received 4.3% of the votes. Labour – with 11 more seats than National – still secured a comfortable parliamentary majority.
In 1954 the New Zealand Social Credit Political League contested a general election for the first time. The party won just over 11% of the votes, but no parliamentary seats. In later elections it would win up to nearly 21% of the votes. Social Credit’s arrival and the emergence of other parties from the 1970s ensured that for the next half-century neither of the major parties ever won half the votes cast in a general election. Despite this, first-past-the-post meant that either Labour or National always won more than half the seats in Parliament. Between 1954 and 1993 National won an absolute majority of the seats in Parliament in 10 elections, and Labour won an absolute majority in four.
The results of the 1978 and 1981 general elections led to widespread criticisms of the first-past-the-post electoral system, two main reasons. First, on both occasions the Labour Party won more votes than the National Party, but the National Party retained power. Second, the third party, Social Credit, won a significant share of the votes, but very few seats – one out of 92 in 1978, and two in 1981.
Responding to a growing sense that the first-past-the-post system was unrepresentative, the Labour Party promised to establish a royal commission to consider whether New Zealand should introduce a proportional representation electoral system, or some other variant. A Labour government was elected in July 1984, and early the following year appointed a five-member Royal Commission on the Electoral System. It released its report, Towards a better democracy, in December 1986. Three of the key recommendations were:
There was little enthusiasm among members of Parliament for adopting the royal commission’s recommendations, and the matter might have ended there but for two crucial circumstances.
Labour Prime Minister David Lange, in a party leaders’ debate on television shortly before the 1987 election, pledged to hold a binding referendum on electoral law reform. This was not official Labour policy, and during its second term in office the Labour Party ignored Lange’s pledge.
Largely to highlight Labour’s broken promise, National’s 1990 election manifesto pledged to provide for a binding referendum to be held before the end of 1992, including questions on the method of electing the House of Representatives. The National Party won more than two-thirds of the seats in the 1990 election, but also began to break promises. Desperate to be seen to be keeping some, the government held a referendum on electoral reform on 19 September 1992.
The 1992 referendum was not a binding one, and only 55.2% of registered electors turned out to vote. However, the results were conclusive.
The Royal Commission on the Electoral System called its recommended electoral system mixed-member proportional representation, which it shortened to MMP. Another of the voting systems it examined, supplementary member, was abbreviated to SM. Other voting systems in the 1992 referendum were also known by their initials: first-past-the-post became FPP, preferential voting was called PV and the single transferable vote system was abbreviated to STV.
In response to the first of two questions posed in the 1992 referendum, 84.7% of voters opted for a change to the voting system. Answering the second question, 70.5% of voters indicated a preference for the mixed-member proportional system (MMP) from amongst the four options on the referendum ballot paper. The three other reform options were single transferable voting (a form of proportional representation), which was supported by 17.4% of voters; supplementary member (a semi-proportional electoral system), supported by 5.5%; and preferential voting (a majoritarian electoral system – the winner needs a majority of votes), which was supported by 6.6% of voters.
Labour Party leader Mike Moore captured the mood when he said, in response to the referendum results, ‘The people didn’t speak on Saturday. They screamed’.1
In light of the results of the 1992 indicative referendum, the National government held a binding, run-off referendum at the same time as the 1993 general election. This time 85% of eligible electors voted, and MMP was supported by 53.9% of them, while 46.1% voted for the existing first-past-the-post system.
The results of the 1993 referendum meant that the Electoral Act 1993 became law and three years later, on 12 October 1996, New Zealand held its first general election using MMP.
Mixed-member proportional representation is, as its name suggests, a proportional representation system in which there is a mix of electorate MPs and ‘list’ MPs. It was pioneered in Germany after the Second World War. MMP – as it operates in both Germany and New Zealand – gives electors two votes: one for a political party (known as the party vote in New Zealand) and one for a local electorate member of Parliament.
Parties are awarded a proportional share of the 120 seats in the New Zealand Parliament on the basis of the number of party votes they receive. However, they must first reach one of two thresholds – by getting at least 5% of the total valid party vote, or winning at least one electoral district.
In the 2008 general election the National Party won 1,053,398 party votes (44.9% of the party votes). This meant National was entitled to 58 seats in the House of Representatives – 47.5% of the total number. Because the party had won 41 electoral districts it was allocated another 17 seats, which were filled by list MPs. List MPs are drawn from party lists, with candidates ranked, which are announced before the election.
The Green Party won 6.7% of the party vote in 2008, but it won no electorates. All nine Green MPs (7.4% of the MPs in the 2008–11 Parliament) were thus list MPs.
National, the Greens and Labour all won a slightly higher proportion of seats in Parliament than their share of the party vote because New Zealand First won 4.1% of the vote, but no electorates. Its party vote was therefore ‘wasted’, to the benefit of other parties. The Māori Party, on the other hand, won five electorates but just 2.4% of the party vote – worth three seats on a pro rata basis. This resulted in an ‘overhang’ – the number of MPs was increased from 120 to 122 to accommodate the two extra electorate winners.
In the post-Second World War period in New Zealand, under the first-past-the-post electoral system, the level of disproportionality was 11%. This is a measure of the disparity between the share of seats won by political parties and the share of votes they received. The New Zealand figure was high by international standards.
A major analysis of the world’s electoral systems, Rein Taagepera and Matthew Soberg Shugart’s Seats and votes, noted in 1989 that ‘New Zealand is in some ways more British than Britain in its adherence to single-seat plurality elections and the two-party system that often goes with them.’1 Since the adoption of the German system of MMP, no one has suggested that New Zealand has become more German than Germany.
In contrast, the disproportionality figure for New Zealand under the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system has been far lower. In the six MMP elections up to 2011, the degree of disproportionality averaged less than 3%.
In the first eight MMP elections in New Zealand to 2017, no single party won more than half the seats in Parliament. All the governments formed under MMP since 1996 had been coalition governments – more often than not, minority governments (with less than 50% of the seats in Parliament). At the same time, however, every MMP government in New Zealand was led by one of the two major parties: National (1996–99 and 2008–17) and Labour (1999–2008, 2017–). In 2020, Labour won 65 of the 120 seats and could have governed alone, but chose to give the Green Party co-leaders ministerial positions.
In mid-2008 John Key, the leader of the National Party (then in opposition), promised that the party would ‘open our ears to New Zealanders’ views on their voting system. New Zealanders have had to wait long enough for a chance to kick the tyres on MMP.’2
While New Zealand governments have not been quite as strong under MMP as they were in the first-past-the-post era, they have not been at all unstable.
The National-led government formed in 2008 had a policy to give New Zealanders an opportunity to review the voting system. As a result, on 26 November 2011 New Zealand held its third referendum on voting systems. As in 1992, the referendum posed two questions:
Should New Zealand keep the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system?
If New Zealand were to change to another voting system, which system would you choose?
The first of four options following the second question was the first-past-the-post voting system, which New Zealand had until 1996.
All of the voting systems on offer in the 2011 referendum had overseas precedents. MMP originated in Germany. Preferential voting is used for the Australian House of Representatives. Single transferable voting is used to elect the lower house of the Irish Parliament. The supplementary member system is used for both houses of the Japanese Parliament. First-past-the-post is used to elect MPs to the British House of Commons.
The other three options had also been on the voting paper in the 1992 referendum. They were:
Nearly 58% of those who voted in the November 2011 referendum cast a valid vote in favour of keeping MMP. Unlike in 1992, this meant there was no follow-up referendum. New Zealanders had effectively endorsed the proportional representation system for parliamentary elections.
In the early 2000s New Zealand used four different electoral systems for conducting local-authority elections.
This system was used to elect most mayors, as well as councillors representing single-member wards. The first mayor of the Auckland ‘super city’, Len Brown, was elected in 2010 by first-past-the-post. He received 49.3% of the valid votes cast.
This system was used for most multi-member ward elections, and for most regional-council elections.
The block vote is a first-past-the-post system in which electors have as many votes as there are vacancies. If there are enough voters to elect one party’s candidate, and if these voters also vote for their party’s other candidates, it is likely that all the seats will be won by the same party.
This is illustrated by the results in the Eden-Albert ward in the 2004 Auckland City Council elections. The three candidates running on the City Vision ticket won a total of 44.6% of the votes and won all three of the ward’s seats on the council. The three candidates running for the Citizens and Ratepayers Now group won a total of 30.9% of the votes, but no seats.
Preferential voting is used to elect some mayors – notably, the mayor of Wellington. In the 2010 mayoral election the incumbent, Kerry Prendergast, won 40.9% of the first preference votes, compared with Celia Wade-Brown’s 34.8%. However, in the absence of a majority, a distribution of preferences was required and Wade-Brown was elected mayor on the fifth count – with 50.2% of the valid votes cast in the election, to Prendergast’s 49.8%. The 2019 Wellington mayoral count was similarly tight, with incumbent Justin Lester 2.5% ahead on first preferences, but challenger Andy Foster elected on the eighth count with 50.06% of the vote.
Single transferable voting (STV) is used to elect some ward councillors (in cities such as Wellington), and until their abolition in 2022 was also used to elect seven members to each of New Zealand’s 20 district health boards. Under STV voters rank candidates in order of preference, as in preferential voting. Candidates need a certain number of votes to be elected.
Atkinson, Neill. Adventures in democracy: a history of the vote in New Zealand. Dunedin: University of Otago Press in association with the Electoral Commission, 2003.
McRobie, Alan, ed. Taking it to the people: the New Zealand electoral referendum debate. Christchurch: Hazard Press, 1993.