Decision 17: Why it takes so long to count special votes

Winston Peters has said negotiations to form the next Government won't begin until the election results are official, which isn't until October 7.

Unlike the past few elections where the result has been clear, this one could go either way, it all depending on Mr Peters and New Zealand First.

More than 380,000 people cast a special vote this election, a record. Questions are now being raised as to why it takes so long.

"Why on Earth does it take two weeks to count these things, when you can count 2 million votes in a day?" The AM Show host Duncan Garner pondered out loud on Thursday morning.

"Winston Peters… can't say yay or nay to one particular side until these votes come in. Fifteen percent of the vote is actually quite big, and it could be the difference between say Labour and the Greens and NZ First having 61 or 63 seats, you see? It does affect the majority."

Special votes come in a number of guises. They include:

  • voters overseas
  • voters outside their electorates when they cast their vote
  • voters who weren't enrolled within two weeks of the official election date
  • votes cast using the telephone dictation service.

They take longer to count because for many, they're not as simple as just ticking off a name on the electoral roll.

Extensive checks have to be made to ensure people who aren't on the roll are actually eligible to vote, and there has to be enough time for votes cast overseas to arrive in the post and be counted.

And it's not just the special votes that are being counted. Every vote is rechecked with closer scrutiny than on election day - for example, making sure people didn't vote more than once. Because it's a manual process, it's impossible to do this in a single day.

Special votes and re-checks can change the outcomes. In 2011, National's Paula Bennett comfortably beat Labour's Carmel Sepuloni in the Waitakere electorate, and after the special votes were counted, Ms Sepuloni had the advantage by only 11 votes.

But after a recount, Ms Bennett emerged triumphant - by only nine votes.

Mr Peters could be waiting for the special votes because historically, they favour the left-wing parties. The Greens have nabbed a seat off National in the special votes in the last three elections.

The swing in 2014, which saw a then-record special vote turnout, was the largest yet - hence why some political commentators have suggested the 58-52 lead National has over the Labour-Greens bloc could narrow to 56-54, if the voting patterns of special votes in the past are replicated this time around.

The closer margin could potentially soften criticism Mr Peters might face for siding with the smaller bloc on the left, rather than the largest party.

James Shaw, Jacinda Ardern, Winston Peters and Bill English.
James Shaw, Jacinda Ardern, Winston Peters and Bill English. Photo credit: Newshub.

Whatever happens with the special votes, it's highly unlikely Mr Peters' position as king-maker will be threatened. In light of this, The AM Show co-host Mark Richardson says Mr Peters should just get on with it.

"It's not going to change anything… it's still going to have National way out in front of the Labour-Green bloc. It shouldn't make any difference to his decision.

"It's just another excuse to be cantankerous, to be difficult, to keep us all waiting and to continue to grandstand like a child.

"It changes nothing. Absolutely nothing. It doesn't justify his decision anymore. He could make a decision now."