Electoral Redistribution in New Zealand

In 1993 New Zealand adopted a new electoral system, closely modelled on the electoral system used by Germany since 1949. Known to New Zealanders as the mixed member proportional (MMP) electoral system, it is used to elect the country's single chamber legislature. The House of Representatives has 120 members, sixty-five of whom are elected by single-member electorates and the remaining fifty-five from closed national party lists.

Because New Zealand's MMP electoral system includes single-member electorates, electoral redistributions continue to be undertaken to account for population growth and movements. A unique aspect of New Zealand's electoral system is the provision made for guaranteed representation for the descendants of New Zealand's aboriginal Maori population. As of 1997, there are five Maori electorates covering the entire country and overlaying the sixty general electorates.

Distinguishing Characteristics

Since 1887, electoral redistribution in New Zealand has had four distinguishing characteristics, all but one of which is protected by a "reserved" provision in the 1993 Electoral Act. No reserved provision may be amended unless 75 percent of all members of Parliament (M.P.'s) support a proposed change, or a majority of voters approve the change in a referendum. The distinguishing characteristics are:

Frequency. Redistributions must take place as soon as possible after each five-yearly census. Since the length of the parliamentary term is restricted to a maximum of three years, each redistribution applies to, at most, two elections.

Independent commission. Redistributions are undertaken by a statutory body known as the Representation Commission. Although two of its seven members are political appointees, the others are members either "by designation", that is, they are members by virtue of the positions they hold within New Zealand's largely politically neutral public service, or, in the case of the chairperson, nominated by the other commissioners. Thus, the political appointees cannot outvote the non-political commissioners. (When the commission redefines the Maori electorates, it is augmented by two further political appointees to provide a Maori community of interest perspective.)

Equal electoral districts. Electoral districts are based on total population (adults and children) and no electorate can vary by more than plus or minus 5 percent from the average (determined by dividing the total population by the number of electoral districts, or electorates, to be created). Thus, as far as possible, all votes have approximately the same value.

Decisions are final. The Representation Commission must publish its final decisions no later than six months after it commences formal deliberations. Once published, the decisions have the force of law and no further changes can be made. Since New Zealand's politicians cannot prevent a redistribution from being implemented, the process is effectively removed from the political arena. (This time limitation is the only defining criteria that is not entrenched by the 1993 Electoral Act.)


Representation Commission Members

Four members of the Representation Commission--the surveyor-general, government statistician, chief electoral officer, and chairperson of the local government commission--provide expertise in the areas of topography and mapping, population distribution, electoral administration, and the relationship between proposed electoral district boundaries and territorial local government boundaries. Since the chairperson of the local government commission is appointed by the government, he or she does not have a vote.

The two political members are appointed by the governor-general on the nomination of parliament; one represents the government and the other the opposition parties. While the original intention was that they would act largely as scrutinisers to satisfy both themselves and their parties that the redistribution process had been conducted fairly and within the established rules, in more recent years they have become much more active participants. Both have a vote, and both (or their appointed deputies) must be present at commission meetings before the quorum requirement is met.

Since the present commission was constituted in 1956, the chairperson (who is nominated by the other commissioners) has always been a member of the judiciary. Apart from chairing meetings of the commission, he or she must be satisfied that the criteria for redistribution as set out in the electoral act are faithfully applied and have not been influenced by political considerations. The composition of the commission provides electors with an assurance that political considerations do not intrude unduly into the redistribution process.


The Rules of Redistribution

The plus or minus 5 percent variation from the average electorate size is the only mandatory criterion. Provided this electorate quota is met, the commission is free to take account of existing electorate boundaries, communities of interest, communication links, topographic features, and any projected changes to the population of electorates during their existence. This very narrow population deviation tolerance minimises the possibility of gerrymandering, but an important consequence is that redistributions are seldom more than arithmetic exercises. Of the remaining criteria, the preservation of existing boundaries usually ranks slightly above the others. While it helps restrict sweeping changes, it is significant only where population movements do not dictate major changes.


Redistribution Procedures

There are nine clearly identifiable stages in New Zealand's redistribution procedures:

1. The number and distribution of the total, usually resident, population is derived from the five-yearly census. The analysis of these data can take up to a year after census night.

2. The Maori option is held over a four-month period shortly after the census when persons of Maori descent are given the opportunity of deciding on which electoral roll, Maori or general, they wish to register.

3. Data from the census and the Maori option are combined to allow the government statistician to calculate the general electoral population for each of the North and South Islands, the number of general electorates the North Island is entitled to (the South Island has a fixed number of seats), and the Maori electoral population and number of electorates.

4. The surveyor-general distributes the general and Maori population data across the existing electorates using small statistical units called mesh blocks. Each mesh block normally contains up to two hundred people. Several alternative sets of provisional boundaries are produced and are referred to the other commissioners who select one or more sets for further development. After further preliminary work, the surveyor-general convenes the Representation Commission. It has six months from the date of its first formal meeting to complete its work and publish its decisions. (In past redistributions the preliminary boundaries have been plotted on maps showing mesh block populations. Modern technological advances make it likely that this stage will be computerised in the future.)

5. Before commencing its detailed scrutiny, political parties represented in Parliament, and any independent M.P.'s, are invited to make submissions. Because, at this stage, the provisional boundaries are confidential, these submissions tend to focus on how each party thinks rules of redistribution should be interpreted. In the past, the commission has found these submissions to be of limited value.

6. Once these submissions have been completed, the surveyor-general details the provisional boundaries he has developed, and explains and justifies his proposals. The remaining commissioners examine the draft and revise it where necessary. Their goal is to achieve as good a definition as possible while keeping within the prescribed criteria. Although absolute confidentiality is demanded at this stage, the political appointees are permitted to discuss the proposals with a very small number of people from the parties they represent as the commission develops its proposed plan.

7. At the conclusion of this stage, maps of the commission's proposed boundaries are published, along with a summary of the reasons for the commission's initial decisions, and public comment is invited. At least one month is allowed for objections, and a further two weeks is allowed for the public to lodge counter-objections. Objections come from a variety of sources, including political parties, individual M.P.'s, statutory and ad hoc authorities, community groups, individual electors, and, occasionally, administrators involved in running elections. This is the only opportunity the public has for input.

8. Once the counter-objection period has closed, public hearings enable those objecting to put their arguments directly to the commission. The hearings are held wherever there are a sufficient number of parties objecting, usually in the larger population centres.

9. The commission's proposed electoral district boundaries are then reconsidered in the light of the public objections, and the definitive electorates, against which there is no right of appeal, are determined. Detailed maps of the electorates covering all parts of the country and legal descriptions of each electorate are prepared to accompany the commission's report. Publication of the report marks the conclusion of the redistribution process although the commission remains in existence until the night of the next five-yearly census.

Although not formally part of the redistribution process, a complete re-registration of eligible electors takes place after the Representation Commission has announced its final decisions. Registration as an elector is compulsory and the state, through its agency, the Electoral Enrolment Centre, re-allocates all registered electors to their new electorates once the redistribution is completed. A re-registration card is sent to each elector; its completion and return confirms re-registration. At the time of the last mass re-registration of electors, approximately 85 percent responded within the two-month campaign period. Most of the remainder re-register as a result of an intensive publicity campaign in the months before the next election.



New Zealand's electoral redistribution process is a low cost exercise. A total of NZ$1.89 million, spread over two financial years, was budgeted for the 1998 redistribution--an average of NZ$0.78 for each voter registered at the time of the 1996 general election. The cost of re-registering voters is greater and averages approximately NZ$3.78 per person, including the cost of an official acknowledgement sent to each voter.



When measured against its defining characteristics, New Zealand's process of electoral redistribution rates highly.The narrow variation permitted from the established electorate quota minimises the possibility of gerrymandering, and ensures that all votes are reasonably equal in value. The commission's membership, dominated numerically by non-political appointees, ensures that partisan political influence does not intrude; while, at the same time, the presence of political appointees guarantees that political input is not ignored. The time constraint that the commission is required to adhere to, and the finality of its decisions, gives certainty to the entire process and general acceptance of the outcome. Despite this, however, ample opportunity is allowed for interested groups and individuals to participate in the commission's deliberations.

There are, however, some drawbacks. Population movements and the narrow population tolerance, when coupled with the relatively small size of New Zealand's electorates, severely limit the commission's attempts to maintain communities of interest intact. All too often, established communities have been torn apart, despite strenuous opposition from local residents, because the variation from quota allowed is insufficient to accommodate what are otherwise reasonable objections. This is a destabilising factor which, at times, may end a politician's career prematurely.

In addition, the continued presence of the political appointees appears likely to result in increased friction in the future. Under New Zealand's now discarded simple plurality electoral system two parties were overwhelmingly dominant, and the appointment of two persons to represent the government and opposition caused no great difficulty. With the adoption of the fully proportional MMP electoral system, however, several parties are likely to win parliamentary representation. Thus, the appointment of one person to represent the government parties and another to represent all opposition parties is likely to create tension in the future.

The past twenty years have been marked by growing politicisation of the redistribution process, and it seems probable that this will continue. New Zealand's electoral redistribution procedures are, however, sufficiently robust to ensure that politicians and political interests are not able to dominate.