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PoliticsOctober 17, 2023

Why does counting the special votes take such a long time?


It involves a lot more than just counting.

In New Zealand, you can enrol on voting day. When you enrol, you don’t need to provide your birth certificate or other documents, you just fill in a form. When you vote you don’t need to take photo ID with you. In New Zealand you can vote at any voting place in the country, or even from overseas. In some countries, if you want to cast a special vote, you have to do it maybe two weeks before the election. In some countries (including the UK!) you get told the one voting place which is your voting place which is where you have to vote. In New Zealand, you can cast a special vote on election day. And hundreds of thousands of people do.

What we’re doing now isn’t just “counting the special votes”. The Electoral Commission is officially counting all of the vote. They do it twice (not including election day), just to make sure. Today, they’ll be conducting the scrutiny of the rolls.

They’ll be checking every physical copy of an electoral roll used by any election worker to cross off names. And they’ll be checking that your name and my name have been crossed off only one roll. That your name wasn’t also crossed off on one of the rolls used in any of the other 50 voting places in your electorate (or any of the hundreds of voting places in a Māori electorate). And in the few cases where a name has been crossed off twice, they’ll investigate. They’ll call you up and ask you where and when you voted. They might visit. Police might visit if it looks like someone tried to vote pretending to be you. If your name is Dan Smith, and the Dean Smith in your electorate didn’t vote, they might check with him if he voted, in case someone just accidentally crossed off the wrong line (imagine they get it right 99.999% of the time – they’ll still make 20+ errors over the whole country).

While this is happening, the enrolments team will be doing all the normal checks they do when someone enrols. We have the same levels (maybe higher) of voter roll integrity as other countries, but the difference is we make the Electoral Commission do this work instead of you when you enrol. Sometimes the checking will be easy: someone has been enrolled before, but they just didn’t update their address since the last election. But for new enrolments this involves checking with Births, Deaths and Marriages if you say you were born in New Zealand. And Immigration if you were born overseas: do you have the right type of visa, have you been in New Zealand long enough?

Now, these are checks they do for everyone who enrols. For most of us that was a while ago. For someone who enrolled on Saturday when they were voting for the first time, they’ll be doing those checks now.

When they’ve done that: when they’ve found the votes of the three people in your electorate who actually double voted and laboriously taken those six ballots out of the piles of votes they’re currently in; when they’ve confirmed which special voters are actually eligible to vote and which aren’t; when they’ve waited for the special votes cast in Auckland and meant for Dunedin to make their way from Auckland to Dunedin; when the votes cast in person in the New Zealand High Commission in London have been flown back to New Zealand and distributed between their electorates, and checks have been done to make sure those voters haven’t been away from New Zealand too long, only then can they finish the official counting of the votes.

Some votes are travelling a long way (Image: Archi Banal)

After the scrutiny of the rolls is done, the official count of ordinary votes can begin quickly. But when the checks have been done, they open the special votes that have been allowed and count them too. And then they’ll count them all again. And if there’s a disagreement between the first official count and the second official count for the votes cast at one voting place, they’ll count them a third time. And if that voting place was one of the big ones, that will take a while, because for these two counts (or three) counts, they’re not just doing a quick how many votes did National get, how many votes did Labour get, they’re separating them into piles so they can report the vote split.

And when all of that is done – waiting until after the last possible day set by parliament for special votes to be returned from overseas before finishing – they’ll be able to announce the official result. And sometimes they even do that a day ahead of schedule, which is a schedule set by parliament because we made the choice as a country that the people who do all the work to make the election work are the 20,000 people who work for the Electoral Commission during the election period and that you should be able to vote anywhere in the country on election day itself and at any embassy or high commission in the world on the day before, simply by rocking up and asking for voting papers and maybe filling in a form.

And when you let people do that, the final important checks we have to do to be sure that only people who were entitled to vote got to vote have to be done after the election. And when you combine them with the official count, they’re done in about two weeks. Which is amazing, when you think about it.

Keep going!