One Question Quiz
a hand going to a ballot box, one takes a straight path and one a wavy path
Image: Archi Banal

PoliticsMay 7, 2024

Six telling tidbits from the review of vote-counting errors at the 2023 election

a hand going to a ballot box, one takes a straight path and one a wavy path
Image: Archi Banal

Double votes, missing ballot boxes, tired tech and stressed staff: how tick-tallying went astray at last year’s election. 

Cast your mind back to November 2023, that bleary-eyed post-election period during which we waited, and waited, for a coalition deal to be hammered out. A distraction from the hotel-hopping of our soon-to-be leaders came in the form of a minor scandal: a data entry mishap had led to hundreds of votes being wrongly assigned to fringe parties.

The initial discovery, made by an eagle-eyed Herald data journalist, involved three voting places, prompting the Electoral Commission to undertake a “full check” of all the results that uncovered a further 21 mistakes. None affected the overall results in terms of who made it into parliament, but everyone agreed it wasn’t a great look.

In December, an independent review into what the hell happened was commissioned and today, auditor general John Ryan released the findings of that review. The general gist is: running an election is a tricky business; staff were under a huge amount of pressure due to unforeseen circumstances; risk management was lacking; and the manual nature of the vote-counting process is problematic. Ryan has made a number of recommendations for strengthening the process, specifically around controls, quality assurance, recruitment, training and risk management, all of which the Electoral Commission has accepted.

Read on for a closer look at six key findings.

Photo: Supplied

1. There was a big change in voter behaviour that no one saw coming 

Officially, the electoral rolls close on writ day, which is about a month before the election. People enrolling to vote or changing their details after that have to cast special votes, which take longer to count. From 2020, people could enrol or change their details on election day itself and some reason, in 2023 an unexpectedly large number of people did this – a 46% increase on 2020, and more than a hundred thousand more than the Electoral Commission’s projection. 

2. So there weren’t enough staff, and they were under the pump

That hundred-thousand-too-short projection had been used to estimate the number of staff needed to process enrolments and count votes over the election period, which led to not enough staff working far too hard.

“Enrolment teams were working 12 to 14 hours seven days a week to process enrolments and do enrolment checks,” said the review. “One electorate manager reported that they had been working for 17 hours by the time they had to carry out their quality assurance checks, and that other people had been working 70-hour weeks for three months. Tired people are more likely to make mistakes.”

The three-week post-election period was a mad rush, with all “post-election processes”  (scrutinising eligibility to vote, processing special votes, investigating apparent dual votes, extracting post-writ changes, and completing the count of all ordinary and special votes) being squeezed into the third and final week. 

A final “quality assurance check” that would usually be done over two days was instead jammed into a single morning. “In our view, these factors contributed to election count processes and quality assurance checks failing to detect and prevent the errors in the official results,” said the review.

3. Some double votes made it into the final count

A new revelation from the auditor general’s review was that some dual votes – where people voted twice deliberately, or, more likely, had their vote counted twice through clerical error – made it into the final results. “Apparent dual vote investigations are complex and time-consuming to complete,” said the review. But the evening before the official result was to be announced, the Electoral Commission told staff to just get it done, or more specifically, to “resolve any outstanding apparent dual votes based on the best information they had at that time and to extract apparent dual votes”. 

“The extraction process is manual, and involves election workers identifying ballots that are ineligible to be counted and physically removing them. This was done late at night under great time pressure,” said the review. This meant “the best information they had at the time” was sometimes, well, not particularly good, and in several electorates, teams finished inputting the data just before the midnight cutoff. 

This led to 892 “apparent dual votes” ending up in the final count, which the commission narrowed down to 321 that could have affected electorate candidate counts. In one unnamed electorate where, even after judicial recount, there was a small margin between the leading and second candidate, “up to 60 apparent dual votes might not have been removed”. The commission further whittled this down to “at most, 24” dual votes that may have impacted the candidate vote in this particular electorate. 

Twenty-four may not sound like a lot, but this news is probably not particularly comforting for the likes of National’s Melissa Lee and Cameron Blair, who lost Mt Albert and Nelson to Labour’s Helen White and Rachel Boyack by a mere 18 and 26 votes respectively, or Labour’s Peeni Henare, who lost Tāmaki Makaurau to Te Pāti Māori’s Takutai Tarsh Kemp by 42 votes.

a hand placing a ballot in a box
Image: Electoral Commission

4. Tech use was minimal – and humans make mistakes

How votes are counted in New Zealand elections is set by law, and while there have been some changes,many of the processes for the vote count remain broadly similar to the provisions in the earlier 1956 Act”, said the review. That means paper ballots are counted by hand, data entry is manually input, results are manually checked and invalid votes are manually extracted. 

“The manual processes are vulnerable to mistakes that can occur when those processes, and the people doing them, are put under pressure,” found the review. “This is what happened in the 2023 General Election. Mistakes happened because some ballots were misplaced, which led to incorrect counting, and because some people made data entry errors or did not do the checks that were required. In one instance, a ballot box was not counted during the official count.” (That missing box of votes, from an East Coast voting place) was eventually found and added to the amended count.)

Electronic processes are used for a couple of steps – verifying voter information and collating information about votes – but two of the Electoral Commission’s three “critical” computer systems are at “end of life and… difficult and expensive to maintain”, said the review.

Whether this “end-of-life” status contributed to the two outages the electronic roll had on election day isn’t clear, but those outages led to some workers unnecessarily directing voters to cast special votes, adding to the already overwhelming number of them.

Another tech issue sounded a bit like a scene from a flat of skint students: there weren’t enough laptops for electorate headquarters staff and people had to share login details. “This caused delay and inefficiency, which in turn affected processing times for official count activities.”

And in a familiar workplace scenario for anyone who has been cast adrift when that one tech-savvy colleague departs, while electronic scripts had been used in previous elections to help with the checking of incoming electorate results, in 2023 this didn’t happen. Yes, because the one person who knew how to do it had left. “The commission did not have staff with the capability to design and deliver these steps, and this additional checking was not done. This created a gap in the effectiveness of the National Office’s quality assurance checks, which was not fully understood at the time, and which was exacerbated by the limited time to complete the checks manually.”

5. There were issues with finding the right staff

Finding experienced people for important roles and recruiting in rural electorates was difficult, plus a complex new recruitment management system led to delays in induction and training. The review implied that people without the right skills were brought on board: “From what we understand about post-election processes, the work requires good attention to detail. Some electorate managers said that, with hindsight, they wished they had understood earlier the type of skills that would be called for when hiring post-election managers and official count process leads.”

And in another familiar workplace scenario, everyone seemed to think someone else was doing the thing. “My staff were told that some electorate managers placed undue reliance on the quality assurance checks being carried out at National Office, while National Office may have made assumptions about the rigour being applied by electorate managers in carrying out their reasonableness checks.”

6. And there were money troubles

 Beyond noting that “budget certainty is a critical element of effective election planning”, the auditor general said assessing funding issues was outside of his remit. But the review did note that the Electoral Commission complained of “increased costs for personnel and property leasing (for both electorate headquarters and voting places), as well as increased paper, printing, and postage costs” and receiving less funding than it had requested – $75.6 million over four years, less than half the $158.6 million it had requested. This shortfall led to “difficult trade-off decisions” being made, it said.

Keep going!