Story: Electoral systems

Page 1. Turning votes into seats

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An electoral system – or voting system – is the way votes are converted into seats. The seats can be, for example, seats 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 example, city council elections and District Health Board elections – have also used a variety of voting systems.

Origins of New Zealand’s electoral systems

The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, between Māori and the British Crown, in 1840 meant 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. It initially 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 sat for extended terms as a result of the First World War, the 1930s economic depression and the Second World War respectively).

People or land, cattle and sheep?

The existence of a country quota – deliberately having a smaller number of voters in rural electorates compared to 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

Single-member and multi-member districts

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 the 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 – to win.

New Zealand’s first parliamentary election saw the country 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

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 the 1871 election, for example, the multi-member seats included the Auckland City West, the City of Wellington, the City of Nelson and the City of Dunedin electorates. The Franklin and Wairarapa electorates were the only non-urban multi-member districts.

The Māori electorates – first introduced as a feature of New Zealand politics in 1867 – were always single-member districts.

  1. Quoted in Neill Atkinson, Adventures in democracy: a history of the vote in New Zealand. Dunedin, University of Otago Press, 2003, p. 76. Back
How to cite this page:

Nigel S. Roberts, 'Electoral systems - Turning votes into seats', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 January 2020)

Story by Nigel S. Roberts, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 17 Feb 2015