Almost all New Zealand elections between 1853 and 1996 were held under the first past the post (FPP) or plurality system. Under the FPP system, each voter has one vote and the candidate who receives the most votes in each electorate is the winner. Successful candidates do not need to win an absolute majority (that is, more than 50%) of the votes cast.
Proportional representation has a long history in New Zealand. The Hare system or single transferable vote (STV) was discussed in Parliament as early as 1878. Support for alternative voting systems was especially high in the 1900s and 1910s. In fact, in 1914 Parliament passed a law to elect New Zealand's upper house, the Legislative Council, by STV. This was never implemented, and the council remained an appointed body until its abolition in 1950. However, STV was used for several local-body elections in Christchurch between 1917 and 1933.
Until 1881, and again from 1889 to 1903, Members of Parliament were elected in a mixture of single-member and two- or three-member electorates. After 1903 all electorates returned only one member.
The only significant departure from FPP prior to 1993 occurred in 1908, when the Liberal government introduced the second-ballot system. This provided that if no candidate won more than 50% of the votes in an electorate, a run off would be held (usually a week later) between the two top candidates. This experiment did not last long – in 1913 the Reform government restored the FPP system.
After an uneasy era of three-party politics in the 1910s and 1920s, from the late 1930s the electoral scene was dominated by the Labour and National parties. FPP helped entrench their dominance because the most popular party usually won a share of the seats in Parliament that was larger than its share of the overall votes. This encouraged the formation of strong, single-party governments. Minor parties were often excluded altogether.
By the 1970s many people were disillusioned with both National and Labour. More voters began to look to alternative parties, but the FPP system did them no favours. Social Credit, the leading third party since 1954, won 16% of the overall vote in 1978 but only one seat out of the 92 in Parliament. Three years later nearly 21% of electors voted for Social Credit, but the party gained just two seats. In the 1984 election the New Zealand Party won 12% but no seats.