UPDATED 9.30PM The country has voted and the preliminary results are in. The New Zealand flag will not be changing.
The existing national flag won 56.6 per cent of the vote, compared to 43.2 per cent for the silver fern flag.
The total number of votes received was 2,124,507 – a turnout of 67.3 per cent.
Of those, just 0.23 per cent were informal votes and 0.21 per cent were invalid votes.
In total, 1,200,003 people voted for the current flag. That was a winning margin of around 285,000 votes.
New Zealand would have a new flag if it were up to six of its 71 electorates.
A majority of voters in Bay of Plenty (51.4 per cent), Clutha-Southland (50.4 per cent), East Coast Bays (51.1 per cent), Ilam (50.8 per cent), Selwyn (51.7 per cent) and Tamaki (51.9 per cent) opted for a new flag, according to preliminary results.
All of those areas are held by National MPs.
In Prime Minister John Key’s Helensville electorate, 56.6 per cent of people chose to keep the current flag.
Support for the current flag was strongest in Maori electorates, including Te Tai Tokerau (78.5 per cent) and Tamaki Makaurau (77.5 per cent).
Other areas strongly in favour of keeping the current flag included Mangere (70.8 per cent), and Manukau East (67.4 per cent).
Voter turnout across New Zealand’s 71 electorates ranged from 78.7 per cent in Selwyn, to 41.1 per cent in Manukau East.
Across New Zealand, total voter turnout was 67.3 per cent in the preliminary results announced tonight.
Turnout is calculated by taking the total votes received as a percentage of the total number of voters enrolled as at 19 November 2015 (3,170,726).
New Zealanders should embrace the decision to keep the current flag, Deputy Prime Minister Bill English says.
“I acknowledge there will be those who are disappointed with the outcome, but the majority of New Zealanders have spoken and we should all embrace that decision.”
Mr English said a voter turn-out of 2,119,953 showed how deeply passionate New Zealanders were about their national identity.
“Now a flag has been decided I encourage all New Zealanders to use it, embrace it and, more importantly, be proud of it.”
Labour leader Andrew Little said New Zealanders had rejected John Key’s flag project, that had “divided the country” and “become a personal crusade”.
“At every stage of the process John Key screwed the scrum in favour of his flag. He made his desire for a fern flag known from the outset. Panel members were admittedly influenced by this and three of the four flag options featured ferns.
“When New Zealanders said they wanted a straight yes/no vote in the first referendum, he failed to listen. He failed to treat the public with respect and put his personal agenda first. Time and again we heard voters say there were higher priorities for the $26 million the referendum cost taxpayers.”
Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei said the result was a major failure for the Prime Minister, who she said politicised the process.
“John Key’s overt campaigning for his favourite flag tainted the referendum from the outset and cost all New Zealanders the opportunity to get a new flag.
“Lots of New Zealanders support a change of flag but voted for the current one because the Prime Minister’s interference ensured they weren’t given a proper choice. John Key alienated people by politicising the process and attacking those who didn’t like his choice of flag.”
Former rower and Green Party candidate Rob Hamill described the result as a "hollow victory". He voted in favour of the existing flag but not because he did not want change. He did not like the alternative.
"It's a hollow victory because most people I think would probably prefer to have a new flag ... we're a proud nation, we have our own identity on the world stage and we want to celebrate that but that [alternative] flag ... it just doesn't represent that."
He believed the country would again consider adopting a new flag within the next 10 years.
One of the most vocal opponents of a flag change, the Returned and Services Association, says it is delighted but not surprised at the referendum result.
RSA national president BJ Clark said this evening that the decision to keep the existing national flag was “an inspiring, strong show of democracy in action”.
“New Zealand service personnel sign up for a number of reasons, but one of the foremost of these is to safeguard the continuing of our way of life,” Mr Clark said.
“It’s heartening so many Kiwis have exercised their right to have their say, and keep the flag. The people have spoken.”
He said it was now time for the country to focus on more important issues.
As the result came in at the change the flag party in Auckland, a journalist said: "the old flag stays".
"For now," Lewis Holden said.
This was met with choruses of "for a little bit" from the crowd of about 15 people.
Standing in front of two flags with the Kyle Lockwood design, Mr Holden said obviously the result was not the one they were after but felt "ecstatic" more than a million Kiwis voted for change.
"Maybe not now, but in the future ... It's really heartening."
After knowing the result, Mr Holden said the black and blue design was not his first preference but supported the idea of having a new flag to represent New Zealand.
While not successful, the debate for change would continue. Mr Holden said he imagined the Red Peak backers would continue the cause and Mr Lockwood would still promote his designs.
The next time the option for change comes around again, Mr Holden would like to see an electronic vote and the debate opened up about whether a flag designer should be included on the panel.
In a statement, Mr Holden said there was still a significant proportion who supported an alternative flag.
"The people have spoken and we accept the majority view. We're also mindful of the close to one million people who voted for change," he said.
Mr Holden thanked those who helped in the campaign.
"The polls showed we were the underdogs, but more than two dozen high profile New Zealanders joined our campaign to explain why having a new flag makes sense economically, culturally and internationally.
"Those arguments are still valid and I think there's a lot of people who would support change in the future, including many people who didn't vote in this referendum."
Mr Holden said he welcomed the spirited debate during the flag campaign, and the fruitful discussion on national identity.
Former Christchurch mayor Bob Parker, who voted for change, said he was disappointed.
"I do think it is time we put a symbol on the flagpole that speaks more of the country we are, rather than where we've come from. But it's fine, that's democracy."
The relative closeness of the result showed the country was moving towards change, although he worried it could be a long time before another opportunity came to change the flag.
"It was a bold initiative and worth doing. It's taken the temperature of the country."
Broadcaster Gary McCormick wanted change. He was disappointed, but not depressed.
"I think the method wasn't well done ... but I think there will be a change. Another five years and we'll have another go.
"We can't hold onto this Pommie flag forever."
Former Prime Minister Jim Bolger was another high-profile Kiwi who voted for a new flag.
He was disappointed, but the "relatively close" result showed the debate was not over.
"The fact that 43 per cent of New Zealanders voted for change says very simply that there is widespread appetite again to look at our flag.
I think that will continue and I think it will grow.
"The only question is when [the debate] will restart. I would believe perhaps it will be sooner rather than later."
Flag Consideration Panel chairman John Burrows said when the exercise started, polls showed nearly 80 per cent of people in favour of the current flag.
“This result shows 56 per cent, so there has been quite a closing of the gap. What it shows is there is now a significant feeling for change, but still a clear enough victory for the current flag.
“I think in the long-term, it is bound to be revisited. If only because as countries change, and as times change, it is good to examine these things from time to time. But, given the cost - $26 million was seen by people as a lot of money - I don’t think another Government would tackle this for quite a while.”
In terms of process, Professor Burrows said he had not had time to think about what could have been done differently.
“But, given the fact it is the first time this has ever happened in the world, and everything we did was new, I think we carried it out to the best of our ability, as well as we could.”
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, who has been a staunch supporter of the current flag, said the country had now spoken, and people should unite behind the existing flag.
“All credit to the thousands who turned out to prevent change – they were determined not to be a push over...while we respect the views of the many who voted for a new flag, it was not to be.
“Whether this was the time for a flag change or not, it did not come about because the PM’s handling of it ensured the result we got tonight.”
Mr Peters told the Herald he did not think the result would put an end to the push for a new flag.
“I think that it could possibly rise in the future. But whatever the future flag is, I don’t think New Zealanders want it to be an expensive business, I think they’ll want it to be during the time of an election itself...and above all, they will want it to signify an understanding of our history and where we’re going.”
Former broadcaster Bill Ralston wanted a new flag.
Now he'll never see it, he said.
"Next time we change the flag I'll be dead."
His feelings hadn't and wouldn't change.
"Get rid of the Union Jack and let's get a Silver Fern up there. That was my idea but people have voted and that's what we're stuck with."
Not even an hour after the referendum result was announced, 61 Kyle Lockwood flags are up for sale on TradeMe. However, many appear to be long-running auctions by official flag sellers.