New Zealand's House of Representatives, commonly called Parliament, is chosen by nationwide election. These elections occur every three years (or earlier, should it be necessary), and take place under the Mixed Member Proportional electoral system. They are co-ordinated by the Chief Electoral Office and the Electoral Commission .
Overview of elections
New Zealand elections occur when the Prime Minister requests a dissolution of parliament and a fresh election. Theoretically, this can be at any time, although there is a convention that Prime Ministers should not call elections unless they have no reasonable alternative.
Elections always occur on Saturday, so as to ensure that people are not prevented from voting due to work commitments. Voting is done at various polling stations, generally established in schools, churches, or other such public places. In the 2002 elections, there were 6,560 such polling stations.
Voting itself is done on printed voting ballots, with voters marking their choices (one candidate vote and one party vote — see MMP) with an ink pen provided for them. The paper is then placed in a locked ballot box by the voter. It is also possible to cast "special votes" if one is genuinely unable to attend a regular polling station (such as if one is outside the country or has impaired mobility).
The electoral roll
The electoral roll is a register of all eligible voters. It is compulsory for anyone who meets the requirements for voting to be on the electoral roll, even if they do not intend to vote. The roll records the name and address of all voters, although it is possible to be granted an "unlisted" status on the roll in special circumstances, such as when having your details printed in the electoral roll could threaten your personal safety.
An electorate is a voting district. There are currently sixty-nine electorates (seven of which are Maori electorates, reserved for people of Maori ethnicity who choose to place themselves on a separate electoral roll). All electorates should have roughly the same number of people in them — electorate boundaries must occasionally be redrawn to preserve this. The number of people in each electorate is tied to geography — the South Island, the less populous of the country's two main islands, is guaranteed sixteen electorates, and so the number of people per electorate can be found by taking the population of the South Island and dividing by sixteen. From this, the number of North Island and Maori seats is determined.
Vote counting and announcement
Voting stations close at 7:00pm on election day. The process of counting the votes then begins. Counting is performed by polling officials. Results (both partial and final) are sent to a central office in the capital, Wellington, where they are announced as they arrive. In recent years, election results have been updated live on a dedicated official website, "www.electionresults.govt.nz". Regular vote counting is generally completed on the night of the election, but special votes (see "Voting") can take longer than this, occasionally producing surprise upsets when they are announced. The final results of the election become official when they are confirmed by the Chief Electoral Officer.
History of voting in New Zealand
The New Zealand Constitution Act
The first national elections in New Zealand were held in 1853, the year after the British government passed the New Zealand Constitution Act. This was a measure to grant limited self-rule to 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 restrictions on voting rights were relatively high. To vote, one needed to:
- Be male
- Be a British subject
- Be at least twenty-one 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 country 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 prevented land held communally from being counted under the property qualification (quite common in electoral systems of the time). As such, many Maori (who were still living with traditional customs about land ownership) were unable to vote. Whether this exclusion of Maori was deliberate or not is debated, but neither side appears to have been particularly concerned by it; settlers believed that Maori were "uncivilized", and potentially had the numerical strength to outvote Europeans, while Maori were uninterested in a "settler parliament" that they saw as having little relevance to them.
Despite the exclusion of Maori and women, however, New Zealand's voting franchise was highly liberal when compared to many other countries. It is estimated that when the Constitution Act was passed, around three quarters of the male European population in New Zealand was eligible to vote. This contrasts with the situation in Britain, where the equivalent figure was closer to a fifth.
Goldminers and the vote
In 1860, the franchise was extended slightly, waiving the property qualification for anyone who possessed a miner's license. This was intended to enfranchise participants in the Central Otago goldrush, who often did not own valuable land but who were nevertheless deemed "important".
The Maori seats
In 1867, four Maori seats were established, enabling Maori to vote without needing to meet the property requirements. This measure was intended as a temporary solution, as it was believed that Maori would soon abandon traditional customs about land ownership. Soon, however, the seats were made permanent. While the establishment of Maori seats was sometimes claimed as an example of progressive legislation, the effect was not as satisfactory as might be thought. While the seats did increase Maori participation in politics, the Maori population of the time was sufficient to warrant approximately fifteen seats, not four. Because Maori could only vote in Maori seats, and the number of Maori seats was fixed, Maori were effectively locked into under-representation.
The secret ballot
Initially, votes were cast by verbally informing a polling officer of one's chosen candidate. In 1870, however, the secret ballot was introduced, whereby each voter would mark their choice on a printed ballot and place the ballot in a sealed box. This is essentially the same system that is in use today. The change was implemented 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, it was 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 in New Zealand were not as high as in other countries, this change did not have the same effect as in (for example) Britain, but was nevertheless significant. In particular, it eventually gave rise to "working class" politicians, and eventually (in 1916) the Labour Party.
Women were finally allowed 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 this was the first time it had not been blocked by the appointed Legislative Council.
The growth of women's suffrage in New Zealand was largely the result of a large political movement led by Kate Sheppard, the country's most famous suffragette. The movement was supported inside parliament by politicians such as John Hall, Robert Stout, Julius Vogel, William Fox, and John Ballance. 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, however, 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, however, 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 often claims to be the first country in the world to have granted women's suffrage, although the accuracy of this often depends on the definitions used.
Lowering the voting age
For most of New Zealand's early history, it was necessary to be at least twenty-one years old to vote. At times, however, 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 twenty, and in 1974, it was lowered to eighteen. 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 for the 2002 elections was not able to assume her position as a member of parliament because she did not meet the criteria.
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. 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 only received 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 by 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
The following is a table of all previous 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).
- In the 1931 and 1935 elections, the Liberals and Reform acted together, but did not formally become one party (National) until 1936.
See New Zealand by-elections.
Last updated: 05-07-2005 15:58:08
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04