Part 3: How votes are counted

General Election 2023: Independent review of counting errors.

The Electoral Commission is focused on making sure that the process for counting votes, and checking the results, means that the vote count is accurate. Small errors in the count, even if they have no effect on the overall results, can reduce public trust in the results and the public perception of the integrity of the election.

In this Part, we describe:

The election day count, official count, and any judicial recounts are all opportunities for errors to be identified and corrected.

The count process is manual and devolved, with election night counts taking place at 2334 voting places and official counts taking place at 65 electorate headquarters for 72 electorates throughout the country.19

Overseas, dictation,20 and remote votes are processed by a central processing team based in the Wellington region. Enrolment processing happens in three processing centres located in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch. The processes are overseen by staff in the National Office.

How votes are counted on election day

Advance votes are counted early on election day

Advance votes cast before election day are stored securely at electorate headquarters and voting places until they are counted from 9am onwards on election day. The counting is done in a designated area at electorate headquarters that is set up according to documented operating instructions. Candidates may appoint scrutineers (party supporters) to observe the early count.

Ballot papers are sorted and counted by tables of counters who follow documented count instructions. Ballot papers are counted by candidate first and then by party. This is the opposite to how the official count is conducted, when party votes are counted first then candidate votes. This use of two different counting orders acts as a form of control.

Count results are handwritten on pre-printed count sheets and entered in the election result recording system known as EMS (Election Management System) by a data entry operator at the electorate headquarters. The number of ballot papers counted is compared against the number of ballot papers issued. There is some tolerance for a discrepancy between the two numbers. For example, the maximum tolerance (for a ballot box with between 2401 and 2600 ballot papers) is 13.

If the difference between the ballot papers issued and the early count results for any ballot box falls within the tolerance, no further action is required. Where the difference exceeds the tolerance, the ballot papers must be recounted. If the difference remains outside of the tolerance, no further recounts are required. The discrepancy will be noted and looked at as part of the official count.

From 7pm, electorates start to enter advance vote results into EMS.

Counting election day votes

Ordinary votes cast on election day are counted at voting places, or at approved alternative locations for security reasons,21 on election night (starting at 7pm). These count results are phoned in to electorate headquarters (usually between 7.30pm and 9.15pm) and entered into EMS on election night.

The count process for ordinary votes is similar to the count process for the early count of advance votes. The maximum allowed tolerance between the number of ballots issued and votes counted (for a ballot box with 901 ballot papers or more) is four. If the tolerance is exceeded, the ballot papers must be recounted. If the difference remains outside of the tolerance, no further recounts are required on the night. It will be looked at as part of the official count.

Each electorate headquarters is set up to receive and record the election day count results that are phoned in from voting places according to a documented script. The results are received by candidate first and then by party. The record of the phoned in results is then manually entered into EMS by a separate person.

Results that are announced on election day are the preliminary general election results. Ordinary votes (that are counted on election day and announced as the preliminary general election results) are stored securely at each electorate headquarters to await the official count.

How votes are counted during the official count

The errors that occurred during the 2023 General Election happened during the official count. The official count starts three days after election day and is meant to be completed one day (2 November 2023) before the official results are announced (3 November 2023).

Ballot boxes with fewer than six ordinary votes are counted for the first time during the official count. They are not counted in the preliminary count to safeguard voter anonymity.

The vote count process is summarised in Figure 3 and described below.

Processing and counting special votes

Special votes cast in voting places for other electorates are sent to the relevant electorate for processing and counting.22

The official count is the first time that special votes (and referendum votes, if applicable) are counted.

During the official count, a centralised processing team located in the Wellington region processes and counts overseas, dictation, and remote special votes23 for all 72 electorates.

Some Māori electorate managers process special votes for their Māori electorate as well as for their general electorate. Māori and general electorate special votes are processed and counted separately.

Removing ineligible votes from the count

During the official count, ineligible votes are removed. Informal votes (where the voter's intention is unclear) that had been identified during the preliminary count are checked again.

Once the official count of ordinary votes is complete, ordinary votes might still need to be extracted or removed (because of a dual vote investigation or a post-writ change). A dual vote is when a voter appears to have voted more than once. If this is because someone has pretended to be someone else, the improper vote is removed. If it appears that a person was issued with more than one ballot, both votes will be removed. A post-writ change is when a voter's eligibility to vote in a specific electorate has changed since the electoral rolls were printed. If a voter with a post-writ change has voted in the wrong electorate, their candidate vote must be removed but their party vote is still counted.

Figure 3
Summary of how votes are processed, investigated and extracted if necessary, and counted

Figure 3 shows a summary of how votes are processed, investigated and extracted if necessary, and counted

All vote extractions ideally take place on one day so that ballot boxes are not repeatedly opened and documentation does not need to be continuously amended.

Once all official counts and apparent dual vote investigations and post-writ change processes are complete, the electorate manager checks the results (described in more detail in paragraphs 3.33 to 3.38). The electorate manager and a Justice of the Peace then certify the results for the electorate.

Once all electorate results are in, the Chief Electoral Officer declares the official results of the election. This happened on Friday 3 November 2023.

How the official count is carried out

Ballot boxes are stored securely at the various electorate headquarters until the official count. The official count takes place in a designated area at each electorate headquarters that is set up according to documented operating instructions.

Ballot papers are sorted and counted by tables of counters who follow documented count instructions. One control during the official count is the order in which ballot papers are counted, which differs from the early count.

Another control is what is known as the "party split" approach to counting the candidate votes, which requires the candidate and party votes to fully balance. This approach aims to help mitigate the manual nature of the count and to give confidence that all votes are counted. There must be two consistent counts.

As with the election night count, count results are handwritten on pre-printed count sheets and entered in EMS by a data entry operator. EMS has built-in validation checks to ensure that the number of ballot papers used and the number of party votes entered are correct. One permitted exception is where the number of ballot papers used is greater than the number of party votes entered. This may indicate a ballot paper has not been returned, such as when a person has left the voting place with their ballot paper.24

Every electorate has an appointed Justice of the Peace. Justices of the Peace are not employees; they are independent observers of the count process and must be present to observe the count, to ensure that privacy rights are observed, and to ensure that the process is protected from undue influence. Candidates may appoint scrutineers (party supporters) to oversee the official count.

At the end of each day, the Justice of the Peace must certify the progress of the count with the electorate manager, post-election manager, and/or official count process leader.

Quality assurance checks in the official count

The official count results that are entered into EMS are printed and attached to the handwritten count sheet and given to the official count process leader. They check that count results are entered correctly and that totals calculated by EMS agree with the manually calculated totals.

As counts are completed and recorded in EMS, electorate managers perform quality assurance checks (reasonableness checks). The reasonableness check includes reviewing that results have been entered against the correct voting place and stage of voting (such as advance voting, or votes cast on election day), results are reasonable (the spread of results is within an acceptable calculated range),25 and whether the results balance (the number of candidate and party total votes are the same).

The reasonableness checks also include checking whether the variance between the election day and official counts exceeds the tolerance threshold (more than five votes), whether votes for any candidate or party appear to have been misplaced in the official count (for example, put in the wrong pile for counting), and whether votes for any candidate or party are changing consistently during the official count.

Electorate managers can use EMS reports to do these checks. Any results that appear incorrect must be investigated and corrected if necessary.

Official count results entered in EMS might need to be amended when a counting error is identified during reasonableness checking. Results might also need to be adjusted when a vote is extracted because of a post-writ change or a dual vote investigation. These changes are done at electorate headquarters.

When the official count process leader has confirmed that the voting place results are correct, the voting place results are finalised. Overall responsibility for the official results rests with each electorate returning officer (electorate manager). Electorate managers sign and approve the final voting place results certificates for their electorate, counter-signed by a Justice of the Peace.

As official results are entered in EMS, the National Support Team at the National Office carry out further reasonableness checks similar to those carried out by electorate managers.

The purpose of these checks at the National Office is to identify any errors that might not have been picked up by electorate managers. The checks include:

  • reviewing any apparent anomalies in the data and results balancing compared to Election Day;
  • challenging the reasonableness of the number of unreturned ballot papers in proportion to the size of the count to ensure that votes have not been inappropriately omitted;
  • checking reconciliations to ensure that all votes were accounted for;
  • checking disallowed vote data; and
  • checking progress with the results (for example, results entry, completion of special votes processing, dual votes, and post-writ activities).

Once all checks are complete and the National Office is satisfied that all amended official results are in order, electorate managers are instructed to re-print and re-sign voting place certificates. EMS is updated and the electorate manager and Justice of the Peace sign final results certificates for their electorate. Māori electorate managers also sign the final results certificate for their Māori electorate. This is the end of the official results process.

Judicial recounts after the results are announced

Once the official election results are certified and announced publicly, electoral candidates and political parties have three working days to apply to the court for a judicial recount of the votes.

The judicial recount is an additional opportunity to correct errors that could affect the outcome of the election (typically when margins between candidates and/or parties is small). A recount is the third opportunity to count ordinary votes and the second opportunity to count special votes.

Although a recount is similar to the official count, it provides additional safeguards against errors going undetected. It is conducted under the direction of a District Court Judge (someone who was not involved with the previous official count) with a team of electorate and National Office staff to support them.

There were three judicial recounts for the 2023 General Election, which resulted in small adjustments to official results. None of the recounts changed the overall election or electorate result.

19: Each electorate manager has a headquarters, and seven electorate managers have delegated responsibilities for both a Māori and a general electorate.

20: To enable people with visual or other learning and communication disabilities to exercise their democratic right to vote, people can dictate their vote and have that recorded and included in the count.

21: For example, a voting place in a public mall would not provide a secure setting in which to count votes, so votes would be transported to a secure location for counting.

22: Special votes are included in the official count if the vote was received on time and the special vote declaration was completed correctly (it was a valid special vote, and the voter is on an electoral roll by the time the rolls close even if they were not yet appropriately enrolled at the time they voted).

23: People who are in a remote location within New Zealand, like an offshore vessel, oil platform, or a remote island can cast a remote special vote.

24: There are reasonableness checks on this; see paragraph 3.40.

25: This includes, for example, consideration of the expected leading parties or candidates, the number of results entered so far, and the proportion of informal votes to total votes.