The previous electoral redistribution was undertaken in 1875 for the 1875–76 election. In the six years since, New Zealand's European population had increased by 65%. In the 1881 electoral redistribution, the House of Representatives increased the number of European representatives to 91 (up from 84 since the 1875–76 election). The number of Māori electorates was held at four. The House further decided that electorates should not have more than one representative, which led to 35 new electorates being formed, including Hawke's Bay, and two electorates that had previously been abolished to be recreated. This necessitated a major disruption to existing boundaries.
Prior to the 1881 electoral redistribution, the Napier electorate covered not just the town of Napier, but also its rural hinterland. The northern boundary was the 39th latitude, the arbitrary line established in 1853 that formed the boundary between the original Wellington and Auckland Provinces. In 1881, this arbitrary boundary line was abolished, and the East Coast electorate came across this line to the south. Inland, the Hawke's Bay electorate went across the line to the north and took up most of the rural part of the former Napier electorate, but it also went into the area of the Rangitikei electorate, and the town of Hastings was gained from the Clive electorate, which was abolished and replaced with Waipawa. Other settlements that belonged to the Hawke's Bay electorate in its initial shape were Bay View, Fernhill, and Havelock North.