Flags are curious things. In one sense, they are nothing more than scraps of rectangular cloth emblazoned with colorful designs. But flags are also the foremost symbol by which the merry band of nations that inhabits this planet distinguish themselves from one another. As symbolic representatives of entire peoples, they can evoke within a reasonable observer almost any range of emotions, from mystical reverence to intense revulsion.

Part of that power comes from their permanence: Flags, once chosen, rarely change. But New Zealanders took their first step to revise their national banner on Friday, when the country finished the first vote in its two-stage referendum.

A government panel selected five designs in September from over 10,000 entries to find a possible replacement for their current flag. Voters mailed in ballots between November 20 and December 11 to choose a finalist among them. The winning result: a black-and-blue design that prominently features the silver fern, a national symbol.

Kyle Lockwood, an architectural technologist from New Zealand who now lives in Australia, submitted both the winning design and its runner-up. His second version, which uses a red-and-blue motif, took the first lead during the vote count. But as other designs were eliminated and their votes went to second- and third-place preferences, the black-and-blue design leapt ahead to a razor-thin victory with 50.53 percent of the vote. A final result will be announced on Tuesday.

Lockwood told The New Zealand Herald that he hoped his winning design would be an inclusive one.

I was thinking about a design that would include all New Zealanders. And I feel like the fern with its multiple points represents multiple cultures coming together and growing upward into the future.

It's been an emblem of ours since 1888. It's part of our heritage. And this fern was also used by Maori as a marker at night, to light up pathways.

Some New Zealanders have criticized the country’s current flag as anachronistic for its prominent placement of Britain’s Union Jack. The design also bears a confusing resemblance with its Australian counterpart. New Zealand Prime Minister John Kay, who pushed for the referendum, complained about being mistakenly asked to stand in front of the Australian flag at multiple international events.

Others have criticized the referendum itself, which cost roughly $27 million New Zealand dollars, equivalent to about $18 million U.S. dollars. About 65 percent of respondents in a November poll indicated they wanted to keep the current flag, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

The silver fern will face off against the status quo in the second round of voting between March 3 and March 24.