Bird of the Year brings in independent scrutineer to prevent voter fraud

Forest and Bird isn't taking any chances with the 2018 iteration of its Bird of the Year competition, after previous years were marred by voter fraud.

Last year it was discovered a particularly enthusiastic Christchurch resident cast hundreds of fake votes for the white-faced heron.

It was a scandal that drew media attention from not just across New Zealand, but from around the world.

"It's absolutely appalling. We cannot have our democratic processes affected in this way," Bird of the Year spokesperson Melissa Irace told Newshub on Wednesday.

"That's why it was so important for us to... do everything we can to make sure this is of the highest possible security. These are very high stakes we're talking about here."

Yvan Richard, from Wellington's Dragonfly Data Science, was the person who spotted the abnormal votes last year. At the time, he said he thought it would be fun to monitor the vote counts with the same software he used to watch the US and New Zealand elections.

Now Forest and Bird has officially brought the data scientist on as an independent scrutineer, monitoring the vote counts 24/7.

Image of data scientist and independent scrutineer Yvan Richard.
Data scientist and independent scrutineer Yvan Richard. Photo credit: Supplied

"I can understand how hacking the elections would provide a certain sense of satisfaction... They probably did not expect that some people would be nerdy enough to look closely at the results," he told Newshub.

A self-confessed bird lover himself, Mr Richard's programme automatically pulls the results and displays them in real-time. He can then keep an eye out for unusual voting patterns.

"Last year, I noticed a sharp and straight increase in the number of votes for the white-faced heron in the middle of the night," he said.

"This year, we are provided with the details of each vote, which allow us to check for multiple votes from the same email address or location."

Mr Richard's scrutineering is only part of the new security set up to protect Bird of the Year.

"There are lots of very professional people who may try to hack the system, but we are prepared," Ms Irace warned.

A file photo of a kererū sitting on a branch.
The kererū has swooped into first place. Photo credit: Getty / File

Despite the dramas of last year, it's hoped things can stay clean this year - with even international stars like Stephen Fry and Bill Bailey publicly announcing their favourite feathered friend (endorsing the kākāpō and takahe respectively).

"People are really spending so much time to make sure people realise how special their birds are and how at risk [they are]. It's fantastic," Ms Irace said.

"It's really a fun and lighthearted way to get more New Zealanders thinking about and talking about our native birds."

The votes were publicly revealed for the first time at 12pm on Wednesday, with the kererū soaring into the lead.

Votes can be cast on the competition's official website and the winner will be announced on Monday 15 October.