Some electorates have only started counting special votes this week, while the half a million special ballots cast in the general election only began last Friday.
Politicians have vented frustration at how long it has taken the Electoral Commission to produce a final count of the vote, while others have defended the length of the count, arguing it was justified given the strict auditing procedures that must be gone through to ensure the final tally is accurate.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” Prime Minister-elect Christopher Luxon said today.
One of the problems arising from the present debate appears to be that politicians and the Electoral Commission have slightly different goals.
Politicians want a tally that is good enough to know where things sit as they try to form a government. The Electoral Commission, meanwhile, is required by law to give a final, audited, watertight result, requiring considerably more time, because when it comes to giving a final audited election result, “good enough” does not come close to cutting it.
When asked about when votes began to be counted, Chief Electoral Officer Karl Le Quesne told the Herald some electorates started last Friday, others began over the weekend, and others this week.
Le Quesne explained the commission could only begin to count special votes after the ballots had been returned to the electorate the voter was enrolled in.
This takes 10 days for ballots cast overseas and 13 for votes cast in New Zealand. A 2022 change to regulations governing elections extended the deadline for having special votes returned to their home returning officer, which is where they get counted. Now 13 days, it had previously been 10 days.
After this, the votes need to be vetted to ensure the voter was eligible to vote.
“Before any special votes can be added to the count, the declarations of all special voters must be checked to ensure the voter is eligible and enrolled,” Le Quesne said.
“Electorate teams can only start the count of special votes once these processes have been followed to ensure that valid votes are included in the count,” he said.
Le Quesne added that the official count, which will be released at 2pm tomorrow, was not just a tally of special votes. It also involves double-counting all the advance and “ordinary” on-the-day votes.
“There’s a lot involved in producing the official results. It’s not just a count of votes, and we need to follow the processes set out in the Electoral Act,” Le Quesne said.
“We begin by updating the electoral rolls and processing all the enrolments and updates from before and on election day.
“We compare all the electoral rolls from voting places to check if anyone has voted more than once, and investigate dual votes.”
During the official count, Le Quesne explained, all advance and ordinary votes counted on election day are recounted by hand a second time.
“The results are signed off by a Justice of the Peace and the returning officer for the electorate before they are reported to the Electoral Commission,” Le Quesne said.
“The results for each electorate and the nationwide party vote are then released together.
“It’s important for the integrity of the results that all these processes are followed. When all of this has been done, and the votes have been tallied, we release the official results,” he said.
Part of the delay is a change made in 2020 to allow same-day enrolment, allowing people to enrol to vote at a polling station and to cast their vote at the same time. These votes are treated as special votes, and take longer to count as a result.
The National Party’s Chris Bishop, speaking on the changes during their first reading, said the regulatory impact statement on the change warned special votes took 10 times longer to count than other votes.
“Special votes require the voter to complete and sign a declaration form. They take up to 10 times longer to issue and process than an ordinary vote and are also more difficult for the voter to complete because of the additional paperwork,” the regulatory impact statement warned.
However, same-day enrollment does have the benefit of increasing voter turnout. People who have not enrolled by the deadline are not disenfranchised.
Luxon also floated the idea, recommended by the recent inquiry into local government, of having the Electoral Commission manage local body elections. This would enable the commission to keep more skills in-house because it would run two elections every three-year cycle, rather than one.
Luxon has floated the idea of releasing a daily tally of the count, which - provided measures to protect the anonymity of ballots were upheld - could provide an update that was good enough for politicians to begin the process of forming a government sooner.
Thomas Coughlan is Deputy Political Editor and covers politics from Parliament. He has worked for the Herald since 2021 and has worked in the press gallery since 2018.
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