People line up to vote at Highbury Shopping Center in Auckland, New ealand, on Saturday. Photo: Rebecca Falconer/Axios

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — National polls opened for early voting on Saturday for what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called the "Covid election."

Driving the news: NZ quashed the virus after one of the world's toughest lockdowns and went 102 days with no detected cases before COVID-19 re-emerged. There are now seven active domestic cases.

A voter casts her referendum ballot before dropping her vote for her selected party and election candidate into the orange box. New Zealanders are voting on whether to legalize cannabis and on the End of Life Choice assisted dying bill. Photo: Rebecca Falconer/Axios
  • Shaun Hendy, a leading scientist who heads Te Pūnaha Matatini, a research center advising the government, told Axios, "We think there’s a really high chance it has died out in the community."
"Although we’ve still got cases in isolation quarantine, we think there’s a 95% chance there are no more community cases out there."
— Shaun Hendy

The big picture: Ardern's Labour Party is ahead in the polls of its nearest rival, the right-leaning National Party, led by Judith Collins, though Labour's lead has shrunk in recent weeks. The election was delayed by four weeks to Oct. 17 because of the second outbreak.

For the record: New Zealand's most populous city, Auckland, went into level 3 restrictions under the country's four-tier system, with non-essential businesses allowed to open as long as there were no physical interactions with customers.

  • The rest of NZ moved to level 2, with table service required in bars, social distancing reintroduced and gatherings limited. Wearing face masks is mandatory on public transport. Auckland's restrictions were later eased.
  • Authorities contained the cluster and there are no domestic restrictions in place outside Auckland as there is no community spread. Hendy credits quickly deploying Auckland's second lockdown and improved contact-tracing systems. He1 expects them to lift next week.

Of note: A New Zealand Electoral Commission spokesperson said voting will operate nationally as if there were community spread, with precautions such as social distancing, use of hand sanitizer and single-use pens to mark ballots.

  • NZ has had advance voting for years, available as an automatic choice since 2011. But this year as a pandemic safety measure the commission extended early voting by two days and added "more voting places, to keep queues to a minimum," the spokesperson said via email.

Threat level: NZ's borders have been closed to all non-residents since March, but they've remained open to returning Kiwis. 42 such travelers have the coronavirus and are in quarantine centers.

  • Among them are 10 people who traveled on the same plane from India, NZ Public Health Director Caroline McElnay said Thursday, the last time any new cases were announced.
  • Hendy said this shows the effectiveness of the quarantine and rigorous testing.

The bottom line: "The key to avoiding a lockdown in future is catching it early, and that means keeping our testing rates up," per Hendy.

Go deeper: Australia and New Zealand to open "safe travel zone"

Editor's note: This article has been updated with the latest number of active community cases.

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