Story: Electoral systems
Page 3 – Back to first-past-the-post
By the time of the 1914 general election New Zealand had reverted to the first-past-the-post system.
Crossing them off
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.
Rewarding larger parties
A key feature of first-past-the-post electoral systems is that they 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 (in 1914, 1919 and 1925), but did not win more than half the votes cast in any elections.
Some argue that the system’s favouring of larger parties is a strength rather than a weakness, as it encourages a single-party government.
1928: a three-way split
The 1928 election saw three parties – United (a repackaged version of the former Liberal Party), Reform and Labour – each get between 25% and 35% of the votes, and no party won more than half 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 just one party (or, in the case of 1931, to two parties, United and Reform, that had jointly contested the election).
Compromise and consensus
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 first-past-the-post
The golden era of the first-past-the-post electoral system in New Zealand was probably 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, effectively denying Labour a majority of the votes, although Labour – with 11 more seats than the National Party – secured a comfortable parliamentary majority.
Third parties enter the fray
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 entry to the political fray and the emergence of other parties in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s ensured that for the next half-century neither of the major parties ever again won more than 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 out of 14 elections, while Labour won an absolute majority in four.