A number of political races have been on a knife edge since election day, and their outcomes could have big implications for the next parliament.
The final vote count for Election 2023 will be revealed at 2pm today, taking into account the roughly 567,000 special votes that weren’t included in the preliminary tally on October 14. Special votes include ballots cast outside of a voter’s electorate and by New Zealanders living overseas.
As we wait to learn what the shape of the next government could look like, here is what hangs in the balance, which seats are sitting on a knife edge – and what history tells us about how the votes may fall.
Why the special votes matter
If you’ve done your homework but want to know what happens next, read on. Crucially, the special votes could change the shape of the next government. If the election night result remains the same, then National will be able to form a two-party coalition with Act. But it would have only a razor-thin one-seat majority, which could become problematic if there are any unexpected departures or defections during the term of government – you would only need one Gaurav Sharma to see National and Act lose their majority.
It’s for this reason that National has been negotiating with New Zealand First anyway. It’s safer to have Winston Peters and his team onboard in some capacity, even if they’re not needed around the cabinet table.
More likely, however, is that the election night result will shift slightly. If National or Act lose a seat to another party, that would mean New Zealand First is required to form a government, rather than just acting as a safety net.
One other option is that the overhang created by Te Pāti Māori’s unexpected electorate success on election night increases further. An overhang is created when a party’s electorate wins give it more MPs than it would be proportionally allocated by its overall party vote alone. Te Pāti Māori’s four seat wins created a one seat overhang as it performed better than its 2.6% party vote on election night, meaning a parliament of 121 members rather than 120 (it will actually end up being a parliament of 122 members once the Port Waikato byelection is held) – more on this below.
With two Māori seats remaining in play ahead of the specials, that overhang could increase again if Te Pāti Māori picks up an extra seat or two (unless the party vote rises enough that the electorate wins become proportional). This would again be bad news for National and Act, increasing the number of seats they would need to hold a majority and forcing Christopher Luxon to pick up the phone to Winston Peters.
The seats that could go either way
It’s been one of the safest Labour seats in the country for more than 20 years, but this West Auckland seat is currently the closest race out of any electorate. Long-serving MP Phil Twyford has had his 11,000 vote majority destroyed and, on election night, lost the seat by just 30 votes. Yes, three zero. It was one of a handful of shock results on election night – nobody expected this to be a close race.
Twyford has held the seat since 2011 but given his low list ranking would be turfed out of parliament if he doesn’t sneak back in this afternoon. He’s up against newcomer Angee Nicholas from National, who is also too far down the list to make it into parliament without the win.
Nicholas has spent the past few weeks learning the ropes at parliamentary induction. If she can't hold on, that will be all the time she gets to spend in the Beehive for the foreseeable future. If she does, it’ll bring to a close a colourful 12-year career for Phil Stoner Twyford.
Nelson was always expected to be close, but was it expected to be 54 votes close? Probably not. This was seen by some as National territory, the former seat of the town’s current mayor Nick Smith. In that regard, and given the closeness of the races in many seats Labour was expected to triumph in, the fact that Rachel Boyack trails National’s Blair Cameron by such a slim margin is a fairly remarkable showing. It remains far too close to call and will be one to watch at 2pm.
Just 83 votes separate National newcomer Vanessa Weenink and sitting Labour MP Tracey McLellan in what was one of the tightest races of election night. This is a relatively new electorate. While it was formed initially in the 1990s, it was replaced by the seat of Port Hills between 2008 and 2020. Labour’s Ruth Dyson held both between 1999 and 2020 (when McLellan won). If the special votes favour Labour, this seat could easily flip back to McLellan.
The former seat of prime ministers Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern, along with Labour leader David Shearer, Mount Albert is the strongest of Labour strongholds. At least it was until October 14 when first-term MP Helen White spent much of the night trailing National’s Melissa Lee. At the final hurdle, she jumped ahead by just 106 votes – well within the margin of error.
This result was the biggest shock of election night. In the last election, Jacinda Ardern beat Lee by a whopping 22,000 votes – more than White and Lee received together this time around. Regardless, White claimed she was pleased with her performance and blamed the Greens for vote-splitting. “If you add up the vote [between Labour and the Greens] it’s pretty good,” she told The Spinoff in the days after the election. “I respect the right for the Greens to stand, that’s their absolute right. But that’s an obvious issue in the electorate.”
If White doesn’t hold on, that could be the end of her short-lived political career. With a loss so unexpected, it would be hard to see her making a comeback at the next election.
On the preliminary count, Labour’s Deborah Russell is out of her electorate (she's in on the provisional list) and National newcomer Paulo Garcia is in. The margin is roughly 400 votes, which might be just too much for Russell to claw back unless the specials err heavily towards Labour. This was another surprising result – New Lynn has been a safe haven for Labour since the 1960s (though, when it was briefly folded into Titirangi in the 1990s, it went to National just once).
Te Tai Tokerau
Te Pāti Māori exceeded expectations on election night, picking up four of the seven Māori seats including shock wins in Hauraki-Waikato (where Nanaia Mahuta lost) and Te Tai Tonga. In Te Tai Tokerau, the party will be gunning to pick up a fifth seat.
On the preliminary count, high-profile Labour MP – and the party’s deputy – Kelvin Davis is leading by roughly 400 votes over Mariameno Kapa-Kingi. Unlike the previous electorates on this list, which are all National v Labour battles, this is a competition between two parties heading into opposition. But what makes it interesting is the overhang aspect discussed earlier and the fact that if Te Pāti Māori wins, it will pick up an additional seat and could increase the overall total in the House once again.
It’s a similar situation in the sweeping Auckland seat of Tāmaki Makaurau, where Labour’s Peeni Henare holds a 500-ish vote lead over Takutai Tarsh Kemp. This hasn’t been the safest of seats for Labour (Henare beat John Tamihere in 2020 by just over 1,000 votes), but the closeness of the race was still a surprise. Henare’s profile has increased over the past term and there has been talk of him becoming a future party leader. This is one to watch.
What do these battleground races tell us?
In short: if Mount Albert flips, that would be (symbolically) great news for National. It would be a result totally unforeseeable ahead of election night. If Te Atatū, Nelson, Banks Peninsula or New Lynn fall back to Labour, that would be bad for the incoming government. It wouldn't change the overall number of seats National picks up, but could see the return of experienced MPs like Phil Twyford.
The Māori seats are more complicated: if Labour loses one or both, that would theoretically increase the overhang – which is bad for National. But if Te Pāti Māori’s overall party vote also grows, it could balance out the number of seats in parliament. This will be what National is hoping for, as it would reduce the chance of needing New Zealand First to form a government.
How do the special votes typically fall?
It’s generally thought that special votes tend to favour parties on the left – which in the current context means Labour, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori. Last election, National lost two seats once the special votes had been counted and it’s possible this could happen again this time around. If Te Pāti Maori’s overall party vote increases, that could eliminate the overhang if its four seat wins became proportional to the overall vote (unless it also wins another seat).
As Madeleine Chapman wrote the day after the election, there remains the “spanner” of the Port Waikato byelection. It’s almost certainly going to mean National picks up an additional seat, which would create a further overhang of one seat. I’m sorry for writing the word overhang so many times.
Could it be different this time?
While it’s become political lore to say that special votes favour the left, there has been some suggestion that 2023 could be different. That’s because of the view that overseas voters will wish to punish Labour for the extended border closures during the Covid-19 pandemic. This could see them float towards National – though it’s also possible they could lean further to the left and support the Greens.
The Greens tend to receive a significant amount of support overseas. However, as their overall party vote picked them up an additional MP in the final moments of election night, they would need to receive a large amount of the specials to pick up any more seats this afternoon.
We all are. Just remember that 2pm is when the special vote count will be released. We’ll have all the numbers and analysis you could ever dream of shortly after, along with live updates of key developments.