Prime Minister John Key is delighted at the preliminary result of the first flag referendum but asked New Zealanders not to abstain from voting out of personal aversion to him.
Kyle Lockwood's black and blue Southern Cross silver fern design got 50.53 percent of the votes in the preliminary results of the first referendum, pipping the same design in blue and red on 49.47 percent.
The official result will be announced on Tuesday and will include votes NZ Post date-stamped before voting closed at 7pm yesterday.
About 3.1 million voting forms were sent out by the Electoral Commission with 48.16 percent returned.
The Prime Minister said he was delighted with the turnout and result, even though more than 150,000 people informally or invalidly voted.
"Some people were always going to send in a protest vote. That's the nature of the referendum that we're having," he told reporters today.
"I don't take too much out of that.
"Even if you don't like me, if you want a new flag I'd still encourage you to vote for it."
The winner of the first referendum will take on the Union Jack NZ flag in a second referendum in March next year.
Flag Consideration Panel chairman John Burrows said it was still too close to call because on first preferences the red fern was slightly ahead and when second preferences were counted the black one just overtook it.
Lewis Holden, chairman of Change the New Zealand Flag, said the turnout was ahead of the usual level for postal elections and referendums.
"The number of informal votes was thankfully lower than we expected. The campaigns for New Zealanders to waste their votes have failed," says Mr Holden.
RSA national president B.J. Clark said the spoiled votes were a sign that democracy was working.
He is encouraging people to vote in the second referendum if they want to keep the current flag.
Family First, a conservative lobby group, said there had been higher voter turnouts in citizens-initiated referendums, which were not binding, but this government-initiated referendum was automatically binding.
"This is a flaw with democracy in New Zealand when a stronger and more credible vote can be ignored simply because the Government didn't initiate it," said Bob McCoskrie, national director of Family First NZ.
Referendum forms showed pictures of the five flags and asked voters to rank them in order of preference.
Deputy Prime Minister Bill English said the result showed strong public interest in the future of the nation's flag.
It was Mr Key's decision to put a flag change in front of voters and let them decide.
How NZers ranked the flags:
1) Black and blue Southern Cross silver fern - 552,827
2) Blue and red Southern Cross silver fern - 574,364
3) Red peak - 119,672
4) Black and white silver fern - 77,802
5) Black and white koru - 51,879
* Source Electoral Commission preliminary first preference referendum votes.