Auditor-General's overview

General Election 2023: Independent review of counting errors.

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā karangarangatanga maha o te motu, tēnā koutou.

In a democracy, it is essential that the public has trust and confidence in the integrity of the election process and the official results of elections. That trust and confidence rests in the public having assurance that votes are cast, counted, and reported accurately.

After the official results of the 2023 General Election were released, a journalist queried the Electoral Commission about an apparently anomalous result in one electorate. The Electoral Commission investigated and confirmed that there were errors in the official results. The Electoral Commission amended and reissued the official results. This did not change the candidate or party vote outcomes but did raise questions about how errors could have occurred in the counting and reporting of results.

After discussion with the Electoral Commission, I decided to review the Electoral Commission's quality assurance processes for counting votes. My review looked at how the errors happened and why quality assurance processes did not detect them. I also sought to understand the factors that contributed to the errors identified.

Running the election is a complex undertaking

Running a successful election is core to the Electoral Commission's role. It is a significant and complex undertaking. The election is challenging to manage – it is a large event, dispersed across New Zealand, and held over a period prescribed by legislation. It includes maintaining the general and Māori electoral rolls and enabling voting through a range of methods, including voting from overseas. The core Electoral Commission staff of about 170 (full-time equivalent) increases to about 22,000 during the election period. The Electoral Commission needs to procure a large volume of supplies and find voting places and electorate headquarters to accommodate election activities throughout the country. It also needs to set up storage, security, and logistics arrangements.

Although there are three years between scheduled elections, the particular day set as Election Day can vary. This makes it difficult to determine the length of time that election personnel and facilities will be needed. The scale and logistics of holding an election means that the Commission is either reviewing the previous election, planning for the next one, or running an election. The Electoral Commission also has to maintain readiness to run by-elections and to run a general election early if a snap election were called.

The Electoral Commission has limited flexibility with many aspects of the election because they are set by legislation. There have been changes to the Electoral Act 1993 but many of the processes for the vote count remain broadly similar to the provisions in the earlier 1956 Act. There are electronic processes for verifying voter information and collating information about votes, but the rest of the process is manual. The legislation prescribes manually counting paper ballots, manual data entry, manually checking results, and manually extracting votes that need to be removed from the count (if they are not valid).

The manual processes are vulnerable to mistakes that can occur when those processes, and the people doing them, are put under pressure. 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.

Although there was a relatively small number of errors, which did not affect the overall outcome, small errors can make a difference. There is room to strengthen the way that votes are counted and recorded, and how this process is assured in the election.

The quality assurance processes were ineffective and were not done properly

Because of the significance of public trust in an election outcome, I expected to see robust, comprehensive, and well monitored quality assurance processes.

The Electoral Commission had quality assurance processes in place to check the counting of votes and pick up problems, including "reasonableness checks". Unfortunately, these processes did not identify the errors that occurred.

Electorate quality assurance checks did not pick up the errors because, in some instances, those checks were either not done or not done with the rigour they required, for reasons that I describe below.

The National Office's quality assurance checks did not pick up these errors, again in part because the checks were not carried out with sufficient rigour due to the compressed time available.

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.

In my view, even if the quality assurance processes had been carried out, the processes themselves were not effective. Not all of the official count controls were well understood, not all controls were monitored, and there was nothing in place to provide evidence that the quality assurance checks had been done or done properly.

The National Office did not have fully documented standard operating procedures for the quality assurance steps that happen before finalising the official results. There was also no structured system for checking and providing assurance to the Electoral Commission Board that final checks were completed and queries either resolved or corrected before the results were announced.

Unexpected events put pressure on processes and people

There were several factors that we consider contributed to a situation where mistakes were more likely to occur and to go undetected. These factors all put significant strain on election workers, who were already working extremely long hours to complete the post-election processes. Tired people are more likely to make mistakes.

In 2023, more people than ever before (almost 454,000) enrolled in the two weeks before the election, including about 110,000 on election day. This was a 46% increase on the number of enrolments occurring in the two weeks before the last election. The Electoral Commission told us that the extent of the change in voter behaviour was significantly more than the Commission's modelling had anticipated and put pressure on the processes that followed. There were not enough staff to process the volume of election-day enrolments in the time allowed for this to be completed.

As a result of the increased late enrolments during the election period and the statutory fixed deadline for releasing results, the Electoral Commission was faced with events that it was under-resourced to respond to effectively or to recognise and address associated risks. The Commission kept to the statutory deadline in spite of those events.

In addition, about 600,000 special votes were cast, 100,000 more than in the 2020 General Election. The Electoral Commission has told us that special votes take up to 10 times longer to process than ordinary votes because they require more checking to identify whether the person is eligible to vote, and in what electorate. Enrolments and special votes need to be processed before the rest of the official count process can be completed so that all valid votes can be counted.

The death of a candidate triggered the need to prepare for a by-election in Port Waikato. Staff responsible for carrying out quality assurance checks on the official results were also preparing for the by-election. In my view, this further reduced the attention that National Office staff were able to give to the quality assurance checks on the official results.

As part of my review, my staff identified a further issue with the official count. The evening before the official result was due to be announced, the Electoral Commission instructed electorate staff to resolve any outstanding apparent dual votes based on the best information they had at that time and to extract apparent dual votes. This instruction was not universally implemented, meaning that some apparent dual votes were included in the official results.

The Electoral Commission was not aware that the instructions had not been followed, which meant that this issue was not considered as part of judicial recount processes. The Electoral Commission has subsequently reviewed all electorate results and confirmed that, even had the dual votes been extracted, this would not have changed the outcome in any electorate.

The cumulative delays in the official count shortened the time available to conduct final quality assurance checks that needed to happen before the election result could be announced. A final quality assurance process that would usually take two days was completed in a few hours, under extreme pressure, on the day the official result was announced. The final quality assurance process failed to detect and prevent the errors in the official results.

In the 2023 General Election, many of the electorate managers and senior management team at the Electoral Commission were new to the role and had not run an election before. Combined with gaps in process documentation, this made it hard for those involved to have a thorough understanding of end-to-end vote count processes and important interdependencies (and related risks) in the post-election period. In my view, this meant that the leadership team and Board may not have fully appreciated the consequences of delays in completing enrolment processes, and the pressures the delays would put on other post-election and quality assurance processes.

Other systemic factors may have contributed

During this review, my staff also observed other systemic factors that might have contributed to the errors.

My staff heard that electorate managers found it hard to find experienced people for important roles and had difficulty recruiting in rural electorates. The complexity of a newly introduced recruitment management system contributed to delays in recruiting, inducting, and training staff.

The Electoral Commission told us that it initially received less funding than it requested, and, in its view, this led to it having to make difficult trade-off decisions. It is not for my Office to determine the appropriate levels of resourcing needed to run an election. However, budget certainty is a critical element of effective election planning.

Risk management

My staff were often told by electorate managers and some National Office managers that, with hindsight, they had not fully appreciated the intensity and complexity of the post-election period. They mistakenly saw their main goal as running election day successfully, rather than as producing the final official election results. We saw this reflected in the Electoral Commission's planning. It was mostly focused on the lead-up to election day, and more focused on external risks (such as disruption at voting places, threats to election workers, weather events, and cyberattacks) than on internal risks.

Although it was appropriate to focus on Election Day risks, the accuracy of the count and the effectiveness of the Electoral Commission's count processes and controls in the post-election period were not identified as an equally important risk to be managed. In my view, this was a significant gap in risk management and meant that appropriate steps were not taken to manage that risk.

A month before the election, the structured approach to risk management ceased and a General Election Delivery Taskforce was set up. The Taskforce focused on operational matters, such as the status of election activities at electorates, and acted as a point of escalation for issues and risks, including staffing issues and problems at voting places.

There was no formal risk analysis and, at this point, risk reporting to the Board was less structured. In my view, from this point on the Electoral Commission did not have enough oversight or understanding of emerging risks. When a post-election issue emerged (delays in processing enrolments), early opportunities were lost to identify, communicate, and mitigate the consequential effects of key milestones for enrolment and vote count processes not being met.

The Electoral Commission told my staff it is implementing a comprehensive risk management system. This includes documenting processes and controls and testing the design and operational effectiveness of these controls. I encourage the Electoral Commission to progress this and to emphasise a continuous improvement culture, where people are encouraged to report risks and errors and to suggest opportunities to improve processes.

Other comments

In this report, I make several recommendations aimed at strengthening election count processes.

The Electoral Commission needs to apply risk management disciplines more robustly throughout the whole election period and improve the focus on risks to the quality and accuracy of the results (both at the National Office and at electorate offices). I have also recommended that the Electoral Commission improve quality assurance checks, strengthen accountability for quality checks, and improve how ballot boxes are handled at electorates.

Despite the expectation of accuracy in the count, a vote count process based on paper ballots and manual counting and data entry is likely to result in errors. Improved assurance processes will help, but these too are not infallible when put under time and other pressures. Investments in systems and processes to improve accuracy are needed. Until then, our election processes will remain vulnerable to the kinds of human error that occurred in the 2023 General Election.

My findings should not be taken as a criticism of any individuals. The Electoral Commission staff we spoke to were committed to running an election with integrity, had worked long hours for extended periods, and were deeply disappointed that the errors occurred. The Commission has told my staff it is already working to fix the problems identified and is motivated to strengthen policies, systems, processes, and practices for the next election.

I thank the Electoral Commission staff who provided us with information about what happened in the election and helped us to understand election processes more generally. They have been generous with their time and assistance.

Nāku noa, nā

John Ryan
Controller and Auditor-General | Tumuaki o te Mana Arotake

1 May 2024