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What are special votes? All you need to know ahead of the official results

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 2 Nov 2023, 3:12pm

What are special votes? All you need to know ahead of the official results

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 2 Nov 2023, 3:12pm

In a matter of hours, the official result of the 2023 general election will be declared. Over the past few weeks, the Electoral Commission has been counting, validating, and re-counting every vote cast in the election. The election night results were preliminary as they only 80 per cent of the total votes cast. The result we will be given on Friday afternoon will include the more then half a million special votes that were not counted on election night.

Could the special votes change the balance of power?

Anything’s possible, but the special votes are unlikely to substantially change the make-up of the government from election night. However, they could leave National and Act with fewer seats than they had on election night and relying on Winston Peters to form a government.

The outcome in close electorates - like Te Atatū with a margin of just 30 votes – could also change.

On election night, the right bloc (National and Act) secured 47.99 per cent of the ordinary votes. The left bloc (Labour, Green Party and Te Pāti Māori) received 40.23 per cent. New Zealand First got 6.46 per cent and 5 per cent of votes went to parties that did not end up receiving representation in election outcome.

The left bloc would need a much larger fraction of the specials than the 40 per cent of votes they won on election night to have a shot at forming a government.

In every election since 1999, the special votes have benefitted the more left-leaning parties. Many special voters tend to be younger and more transient – a population that often supports left-wing parties. Think students who move flats regularly and may not have updated their enrolment details to their new address.

In 2017, there were 419,669 special votes - which is 16.2 per cent of the vote. By the time the official result was declared, National’s initial seat allocation was reduced by two while Labour and the Greens both gained one seat each.

This time, the special votes could affect the number of seats in parliament. Te Pati Māori have strong leads in four electorates and the special votes are unlikely to change that.

This has created an overhang of one extra seat. The party is also quite close in two other seats and if they secured them after the specials were counted, this could increase the overhang to three, making Parliament 123 seats.

Conversely, in previous elections special results have increased Te Pati Māori’s share of the party vote so there may be no overhang once all votes are counted.

What is a special vote?

Everyone who voted in the election cast either an ordinary or special vote. The Election Commission has estimated 20 per cent of people cast a special vote (approximately 567,000 votes). Last election, there were 504,621 special votes.

There are several reasons why someone would cast a special vote. It might be because they were not enrolled or they were voting outside of their normal electorate. It could also be because they were voting from overseas, however overseas votes make up a small proportion of special votes.

Why do special votes take so long to count?

By law, votes cast outside of the voter’s electorate need to be transported back to the correct electorate before they are counted. If you live in Wellington but cast your vote in Auckland, your special vote needs to be transported back to the Capital before it can be counted.

The official election result will be declared on Friday, about three weeks after election night. Between election day and when the official result is declared, the commission is waiting for all the special votes to be returned and counting every vote – both oridnary and special – at least twice.

As election law expert Graeme Edgeler explains, a more complicated and comprehensive post-election vote counting process is the trade-off for our voting system, which is designed to make it easy to vote.

Are special votes counted the same way as ordinary votes?

Yes. Every vote is counted at least twice by hand. The commission does not use counting machines.

What can we expect on Friday when special vote results are released?

The official result of the election will be declared this Friday, November 3, at 2pm. The results are released via the media and on the Electoral Commission’s website.

The results will be high-level – so we will know the final tallies for the overall party vote and the overall votes in each electorate.

Julia Gabel is an Auckland-based journalist who largely covers data stories. She joined the Herald in 2020.

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