With the 2019 Federal Election about to be announced, we thought it might be helpful if we explained the convoluted process by which our Preferential Voting System works, and how the Australian Electoral Commission determines who the winners will be.

Full details at: https://www.aec.gov.au/

Counting the votes on election night

Counting at polling places

Polling officials are required to complete three main tasks when polls close, in the following order:

= count the first preferences on the House of Representatives ballot papers

= conduct a two-candidate-preferred (TCP) count of the House of Representatives ballot papers, and

= count the first preferences on the Senate ballot papers.

Only ordinary votes from polling places are counted on election night. That is, the ordinary votes that are cast at a polling place where the voter’s name is marked off the electoral roll at the time of voting.

House of Representatives count on election night

Immediately after the polling place doors close, polling officials open and empty the House of Representatives ballot boxes. The green ballot papers are unfolded and all the number ‘1’ votes (first preferences) are put into separate piles for each candidate and counted. Informal ballot papers are counted separately (ballot papers that are not completed correctly are referred to as informal ballot papers).

The first preference results for each candidate are phoned through to the Divisional Returning Officer (DRO), along with the number of informal ballot papers. The figures are then data entered and transmitted to the Tally Room on the AEC website and provided to media outlets through a media feed system. Constant updates occur over election night through the Tally Room every time new information is entered.

Two-candidate-preferred count for House of Representatives on election night

Following the first preference count, polling officials conduct an indicative two-candidate-preferred (TCP) count – a distribution of ballot papers to two selected candidates. This result is then phoned through to the DRO.

The two selected candidates are those expected to receive the most first preference votes. The TCP count is conducted to give an early indication of who is most likely to win each seat, as this is not always clear from first preferences. The Tally Room also provides TCP information as soon as it is entered into the AEC system.

The AEC selects the two candidates for the TCP count based on a number of factors including historical voting patterns in previous elections. The names of the two candidates are kept confidential until the close of the poll. The ballot papers for all other candidates are examined to see which of the two selected candidates the voter has put ahead in their preferences. The ballot papers are then sorted to the candidate who has the highest preference. This process ends up with all ballot papers being allocated to one or other of the two selected candidates to give a TCP count result.

The AEC is required to undertake the indicative TCP count under subsections 274 (2A), (2B) and (2C) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Electoral Act). The provision was legislated in 1992 and resulted from a recommendation by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters following its inquiry into the 1990 federal election that this count occur in polling places. The intent was to assist with a quicker understanding on election night of the party or parties likely to form Government in the federal election. In instances where it is evident that one or both of the leading candidates differ from that selected, then the TCP count is restarted and preferences distributed to the correct two leading candidates in the days following the election night count.

The first preference, TCP, and full distribution of preferences counts are observable by scrutineers and the results published on the Tally Room.

Senate count on election night

Following the House of Representatives count, polling officials open and empty the Senate ballot boxes. The ballot papers are sorted into first preferences for each group above-the-line (ATL) and below-the-line (BTL) and first preferences for each ungrouped candidate as well as those which are obviously informal. A first preference figure for each group (combined total for ATL and BTL), each ungrouped candidate and the total of obviously informal votes is phoned through to the DRO and then transmitted to the Tally Room on the AEC website.

The Senate scrutiny and the distribution of preferences is done at the Central Senate Scrutiny in each state or territory. The final results cannot be calculated until the state or territory-wide total of all votes is known and is used to determine the quota – the proportion of votes required by a candidate to be elected. It is only possible, therefore, to get an indication of the Senate results on election night.

Declaration Votes

Where a person votes at a location that does not have the relevant electoral roll to mark them off, they will cast a declaration vote. A person who completes a postal vote is considered to have completed a declaration vote. A declaration vote is when a person ‘makes a declaration’ about their entitlement to vote and then places their ballot papers into a declaration envelope. Declaration votes, including postal votes, must be returned to the relevant DRO so the person can be marked off the electoral roll before their vote can be counted.

Counting the votes after election night

Fresh scrutiny/DRO Senate count of ordinary votes

The initial vote counting conducted on election night is followed by a ‘fresh scrutiny’ of House of Representatives ballot papers and check of the polling place count of formal and informal Senate ballot papers, called a DRO Senate count. Both these counts commence in the week following election day in the divisional out-posted centre.

The DRO counts all ordinary votes received from every polling place in their division. Some House of Representatives ballot papers that were treated as informal on election night may be admitted to the count by the DRO, and similarly ballot papers previously regarded as formal may be reclassified as informal.

Corrected count figures will result in a change to the figures displayed on the Tally Room on the AEC website.

The DRO is responsible for conducting an initial count and fresh scrutiny of votes not counted in polling places on election night – those collected by mobile teams and PPVCs. This may commence after 6pm on election night at the divisional out-posted centre and continue through the following week.

Declaration vote scrutiny

Declaration votes do not get counted on election night; instead, they are counted in the weeks following election night. The counting of these votes takes longer than the counting of ordinary votes.

The scrutiny of declaration votes is done in two stages:

the preliminary scrutiny of postal vote certificates and declaration envelopes containing pre-poll, absent or provisional votes to determine whether each person is entitled to a vote, and

the further scrutiny where the ballot papers admitted to the scrutiny are taken out of their envelopes and placed into ballot boxes ready to be counted.

The preliminary scrutiny of declaration votes may begin once envelopes are received. However, no envelopes are opened or any votes counted until after the polls close on election day.

A declaration vote is accepted for further scrutiny if it meets certain requirements. The requirements are:

the declaration on the envelope has been properly completed and signed by the voter,

it has been appropriately witnessed, and

the voter is entitled to vote.

In addition, a postal vote must have been recorded prior to the polls closing. That is, before 6pm on election day.

The AEC is required to wait 13 days after election day to receive declaration votes before it can finalise counting. This ensures that voters in remote areas and overseas are not disenfranchised.

Further scrutiny

Once a declaration vote is admitted to further scrutiny, the declaration envelope is opened face down and the ballot papers extracted, without being unfolded, and placed in a ballot box. They are then treated in the same way as ordinary ballot papers.

Computerised Senate scrutiny

After the DRO Senate count the ballot papers are sent to the Central Senate Scrutiny where the Australian Electoral Officer (AEO) for the state or territory is responsible for the scrutiny of ballot papers.

The computerised scrutiny system is used to calculate the quota, distribute preferences and determine the results.

Declaration of the polls

Once the votes are counted and a successful candidate(s) has been determined there is a public declaration of the result. The declaration of the poll for each House of Representatives electorate is conducted publicly by the DRO. The declaration of the Senate election for each state and territory is conducted by the respective AEO.

Return of the writs

After the Senate polls are declared, the AEO for each state returns the writ for their election endorsed with the names of the successful candidates to the State Governor. The territory AEOs return their writs to the Governor-General.

For the House of Representatives, the Electoral Commissioner returns the writs for each state and territory endorsed with the name of the successful candidate for each electorate in that state or territory. These writs are returned to the Governor-General.