At the time of writing, I work for New Zealand’s Electoral Commission, although only on a temporary assignment. Still, it’s really hard to type I work for the Electoral Commission without following it with seventeen exclamation marks and a video of me dancing around the kitchen.
Honestly I’m a little bit obsessed with anything to do with voting and elections. It’s like watching an engrossing TV drama, but where every single person has been replaced by a statistic. (This is also why I like following cricket scores.) I’ve stayed up all night for the last two UK General Elections and the last two US Presidential Elections, and my reward was that I got to follow the most recent UK General Election in New Zealand during the day. This turned out to be the worst reward in the world, but I still enjoyed myself in between tearing all my hair out and shouting at hostel dwellers for – according to them – no reason.
Even more exciting than working for the Electoral Commission is the fact that they’re currently concentrating on New Zealand’s upcoming Flag Referendums. I know you’re thinking that nothing’s as cool as elections, and you’re almost right, but actually there’s exactly one thing that is. Flags. It’s flags. Flags are great. I love flags. Flags.
The Flag Referendums are the precious babies of John Key, the Prime Minister of New Zealand and possibly the only person in the entirety of the country who actually cares about changing the flag. Most Kiwis I’ve spoken to consider the issue to be a mis-prioritised waste of time and the referendums to be a colossal waste of money. (My employment is now part of that wasted money. Sorry bros.)
To be fair to Key, there are a number of reasons why it might be good for New Zealand to at least consider the issue. Here are some of the problems with the current flag:
- It looks virtually identical to the Australian flag. Politicians have been seated under the wrong flag on the global stage, and sometimes citizens of Australia and New Zealand can’t even tell them apart.
- It has the flag of another country on it. Would you want – for the sake of argument – the American flag in the corner of yours? No you bloody well wouldn’t. Even if you’re American. That’d be a weird sort of Flag Inception.
- It doesn’t recognise New Zealand’s Maori influence. New Zealand is hugely self-conscious about how much it recognises the Maori portion of its population, and this flag somewhat flies (ha!) in the face of its quest for inclusion.
There are also plenty of reasons not to change the flag, but mostly it just seems like Kiwis are pretty apathetic towards the whole thing. You can gauge just how seriously they’re taking it by the submissions that are being made during the current consultation phase. They’re completely terrible and absolutely hilarious.
So this is how it will work:
- There’s a public consultation period, and citizens can put forward all the bugnut ideas that they’ve fashioned out of MS Paint.
- The Flag Consideration Panel – a group of 12 rather arbitrary but demographically diverse non-politicians – will ignore every single ridiculous MS Paint flag, and put forward a shortlist of four flags that they’ve probably already agreed on. In particular, these two possibilities are almost certain to make the shortlist:
- The first postal referendum will be run in November this year, and every registered voter will be asked to use a preferential voting system to rank the four possible alternative flags. At this point, they’re being asked what they would want as the new flag if the flag changed.
- Once an alternative flag has been chosen, a second postal referendum will be held in February next year, and voters will be asked to simply choose between the existing flag and the winning flag from the first referendum. The decision is binding.
There’s been a lot of controversy about the decision-making requiring two referendums. It’s interesting to note that, if you reversed the order of the referendums, you could potentially save money by not having to run the second one, but the process would also be more likely to result in the flag changing, and people being unhappy about the new one.
Anyway, none of this is up to the Electoral Commission. All we do is run the actual referendum. This is a big deal, and it’s critical that it runs smoothly. To this end, we’re currently simulating the referendums to ensure that we have working systems in place for counting and legitimising the vote.
In my super-glamorous role as Processing Officer, I help run mock referendums, wherein we fill in ballot papers (including deliberately defacing some in the same crude manner we expect of the electorate), map them to the database and then cross-check the votes with the optical scanning system to see if it’s correctly identified each voter’s intention. Very often it hasn’t and we have to manually change the vote on the system. We’re interested in how long the process takes and how accurate the computer software is – in other words, how much time we have to waste correcting the computer’s counting errors.
The most interesting discussions are around voter intention. Since voters choose to express themselves in a myriad of ways that conflict with what they were actually asked to do, it sometimes isn’t easy to figure out what they meant. The nuances of this means a human is very often required to change a vote from the way the computer has interpreted it.
I’ll show you what I mean…
In the preferential voting referendum, voters are asked to rank all four flags in order. (They can of course just choose one or two if they wish.) A correctly completed ballot paper might look like this.
But maybe someone does this instead:
Now the computer’s no longer going to understand, but a human can pretty clearly decipher voting intention.
But what about this:
Before, that ‘II’ was pretty clearly the number two, but now the presence of the ‘I00’ means it seems more like the number eleven. Voting intention is no longer quite so clear.
There are also issues around vandalism of the ballot papers. If someone writes Fuck the National Party in huge letters across their vote, that’s fine, as long as we can still read the question and the response. But sometimes people change the wording of the question itself, or doodle on a picture of a flag before voting for it. Now it’s confusing: are they answering the ballot question or their own question? Are they voting for the original picture or their amended version? What if they put a cross instead of a tick – are they voting for that option or crossing it out? In all truly controversial cases, the voting intention is ultimately ascertained by a senior member of the Electoral Commission, who will use their best judgement in an attempt to ensure that the vote can be counted.
All of which means that it’s in your interest to be as clear as possible. Your hilarious attempts at sticking it to the man may not work as you intended. As someone in the UK General Election recently discovered, if you draw a penis next to a candidate’s name and it’s actually within the voting box, the Returning Officer may very well just count it as a vote.
So what have I learned? Firstly, I’m relieved to see that this system is fair and rigorous in the extreme. Every care is taken to ensure that each vote is counted accurately, and the system also ensures accountability by recording each vote in a comprehensive and searchable database. Every voting slip has a QR code on it, which is catalogued when the slip is sorted. This means that – in theory, at least – any single vote can always be retrieved from the millions that are being processed.
The downside is that this system is extraordinarily inefficient and expensive in terms of actually counting votes. Each person’s vote requires:
- A voting slip to be sent to their address
- The voting slip to be returned by post to the Electoral Commission
- The voting slip envelope to be sliced open
- The voting slip to be extracted and sorted into a pile
- The voting slip to be scanned
- The scanned slip to be read by a computer
- The computer’s answer to be cross-checked by two separate people
- The computer’s answer to be reviewed by a third person if voting intention is still unclear
Anyway, as someone who is now totally a professional vote counter, let me finish by giving you a few words of advice on filling in your next ballot.
- Read the instructions. If it says put a tick, don’t put a cross! If it says put a 1, don’t put a tick! If this sounds patronising, then blame the rest of your country’s citizens for their shockingly-high levels of ineptitude.
- You are not too busy to draw a proper tick. It will take you all of one microsecond to turn that pathetic little smudge into a mark of which to be proud, and then I don’t have to spend ten minutes squinting at your ballot paper trying to work out if you’ve actually filled it in or just spilled biscuit crumbs on it.
- It is pointless using your ballot paper to protest. Your vote is just one of more than a thousand votes I’ve seen in the last hour. No matter how eloquently you express yourself, I will completely ignore you and simply look at what you put inside the boxes. Your essay-length diatribe will have been wasted. In a similar vein:
- You are not funny. I don’t have time to laugh at your ballot witticisms. I simply resent the fact that your cluttering of the paper has slowed down my ability to process your vote.
- Every person of voting age has the responsibility of being able to acquire a pen. Just a regular biro will do fine. Not a pencil. Not a crayon. Not a highlighter. Not your own blood. For the love of all human decency, please just find a normal pen.
This is an exciting project of which to be a part. It could see the birth of a new flag, something that happens very rarely indeed on the international stage. Still, I can tell you now with absolute certainty what’s going to happen:
- The silver fern flag will be chosen as the preferential alternative
- It will lose the second referendum, and New Zealand will keep its current flag
There, I just saved everyone an awful lot of time, money and speculation. And I wrote myself out of a job.