New Zealand will find out Thursday whether flag will change

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealanders will find out Thursday whether they will keep the British Union Jack on their flag or replace it with a silver fern after more than 2 million people voted in a nationwide ballot.

Voters were asked to choose between their current flag, which has been the national symbol since 1902, and a new design that was winnowed from more than 10,000 entries submitted by the public.

Those entries ranged from the serious to the silly, like one that featured a kiwi bird shooting a green laser beam from its eye. In the end, the winning design was a hybrid of the old and new, keeping the Southern Cross star formation while replacing the British symbol with a native plant.

But after spending millions of dollars and months on the process, opinion polls indicate the South Pacific nation will choose to stick with its current flag. Proponents for the new design haven’t given up hope, however, saying they have momentum on their side.

“It’s going to be close,” said Lewis Holden, chairman of a campaign for change. “I’d love to see it get across the line.”

Holden said he believed a majority of voters favored changing the flag but not all of them had rallied behind the new design.

Those advocating change say the current flag is a relic of the nation’s colonial past and too similar to Australia’s flag. Those favoring the status quo say the new design is uninspiring or an attempt by Prime Minister John Key to create a legacy.

Opponents to change include the Returned and Services Association, which represents war veterans. It says New Zealand soldiers fought and died under the current flag and it shouldn’t be changed.

Organizers say that deciding the issue by popular vote represents a world first, with other countries changing flags by revolution, decree or legislation.

Voter turnout in the mail ballot was over 66 percent by Wednesday, with 2.1 million votes cast from the country’s 3.2 million registered voters.

Thursday’s result will be preliminary, although the trickle of valid ballots expected to arrive in the coming days won’t change the result unless it’s extraordinarily close.