Story: Electoral systems

Different electoral systems deliver different numbers of parties in Parliament and different kinds of governments. Before 1996 New Zealanders voted for their members of Parliament in first-past-the-post elections, and generally either the National or Labour parties were in government. After proportional representation was introduced in 1996 more minor parties entered Parliament, and coalition governments became the norm.

Story by Nigel S. Roberts
Main image: Voters voting in the 2008 general election

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Electoral systems are the voting systems used to elect people to Parliament, local councils and other boards.

New Zealand’s first electoral systems

New Zealand’s government was based on the British model. At first most electorates had only one member of Parliament (MP), but some had more than one. In those electorates voters had as many votes as there were vacancies. Multi-member districts were abolished in 1903.


Before 1996 the main voting system used in Parliamentary elections was first-past-the-post. Under this system, the candidate who gets the most votes wins. It was usual for one party to get more than half of the seats in Parliament, so it could become the government. It was hard for minor parties to get into Parliament, because they had to win an electorate seat.

For a short time (1908–13) New Zealand had a two-round election system, where candidates had to get at least half the votes to win. If no one did, then voters had to choose between the top two candidates.

Royal Commission on the Electoral System

Because of criticisms of first-past-the-post, including that it was biased against smaller parties, a royal commission was set up in 1985 to consider whether New Zealand should change its electoral system. The royal commission recommended that New Zealand should adopt a mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system and increase the number of MPs to 120.


Two referendums were held for voters to say if they wanted to change the electoral system and, if so, what they wanted to change it to. The majority of people chose MMP, and it was introduced in 1996.

What is MMP?

Under MMP each voter has two votes – one for the electorate candidate they want to be their local MP, and the other for the political party they like the most (the party vote). The party gets the same proportion of seats in Parliament as they got party votes. For example, if a party gets a third of the votes, it will get a third of the seats in Parliament.

Under MMP more small parties are represented. No one party has won more than half of all votes, so the large parties – National and Labour – have had to go into coalition with smaller parties to form a government.

2011 referendum

At the same time as the parliamentary election on 26 November 2011 a referendum was held to see if voters wanted to stay with MMP, or whether they wanted to change to a different electoral system. Nearly 58% voted to stay with MMP.

Local authority elections

In the 2000s four different electoral systems were used to elect mayors and councillors on local councils:

  • first-past-the-post
  • block voting, where voters have as many votes as there are vacancies
  • preferential voting, where voters rank candidates in order of preference, and candidates need a majority to win
  • single transferable voting, where voters rank candidates in order of preference, and candidates need a certain number of votes to win.
How to cite this page:

Nigel S. Roberts, 'Electoral systems', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 January 2020)

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