Australian Electoral Commission

Counting the votes on election night and in the post-election period

Updated: 12 February 2014

Counting the votes on election night

The counting of votes, known as the scrutiny, begins at 6pm on election day.

Counting at polling places

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

  1. count the first preferences on the House of Representatives ballot papers
  2. conduct a two-candidate-preferred (TCP) count of the House of Representatives ballot papers, and
  3. count the first preferences on the Senate ballot papers.

Only ordinary votes are counted on election night. Ordinary votes are those cast at an AEC voting location (polling place, early voting centre, or mobile team) where the voter's name is marked off the electoral roll at the time of voting.

Where a person votes at a location that does not have the relevant electoral roll to mark off the person's name, they will cast a declaration vote. The ballot papers are put into an envelope and this is called a 'declaration vote'. Declaration votes, including postal votes, must come back to the AEC so the person can be marked off the electoral roll before their vote can be counted. Declaration votes cast in polling places are packaged up by polling officials for return to the 'home' electorate.

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

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

Following the first preference count on election night, polling officials conduct an indicative two-candidate-preferred (TCP) count – a distribution of ballot papers to two selected candidates.

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 unless a candidate clearly receives more than fifty percent of the formal first preference votes cast. The first preference and TCP counts are published on the VTR progressively.

The AEC selects the two candidates for the TCP count based on a number of factors in the relevant seat including the previous election results and voting patterns. The names of the two candidates are kept confidential by the AEC until the close of the poll in order to remove any suggestion that the AEC is in any sense being predictive. During the count 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 number. 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 this count occur in polling places. The intent was to assist 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 the leading candidates differ from that selected, then the TCP count is restarted and preferences distributed to the correct two leading candidates.

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

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 those which are formal above-the-line or below-the-line and those which are informal.

The formal ballot papers are counted according to where the first preference is marked, either a group above-the-line or a candidate below the line. The first preference votes for groups and ungrouped candidates are phoned through to the DRO and then transmitted to the Virtual Tally Room on the AEC website.

In some of the largest counting (scrutiny) centres, completion of the Senate first preference count may be finalised on Sunday.

Because Senate results cannot be calculated until the state-wide total of formal votes used to determine the 'quota' is known, it is not possible to get more than a general impression of the Senate results on election night.

The polling officials then place all the House of Representatives and Senate ballot papers into sealed parcels and deliver them, and the declaration votes, to the relevant DRO.

Counting the votes after election night

Fresh scrutiny of ordinary votes

The initial vote counting conducted on election night is followed by a 'fresh scrutiny' of both House of Representatives and Senate ballot papers. This commences on the Monday after election day in AEC premises.

The DRO counts all ordinary votes received from every polling place in their electorate. Some ballot papers which 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 on the VTR.

Declaration vote scrutiny

The DRO conducts a preliminary scrutiny of declaration vote envelopes to determine which declaration votes are admissible and can proceed to further scrutiny.

The preliminary scrutiny of postal votes begins on the Monday before election day, however no votes are opened or counted until after the polls close on election day. The preliminary scrutiny of other declaration votes (absent, provisional and pre-poll) begins in the week after election day once these votes have been received back in the 'home' electorate.

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.

The AEC is required to wait 13 days after election day to receive postal 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 removed, without being unfolded, and placed in a ballot box. They are then treated in the same way as ordinary ballot papers.

A scrutiny of votes collected by mobile teams is undertaken in all electorates on the Sunday after election day. Further scrutiny of declaration votes cannot commence until the Monday after election day.

Computerised Senate scrutiny

The Senate ballot papers marked above-the-line are manually counted in AEC offices and the first preference figures for each party and group are tallied. Numbers of votes for each group is then data entered.

The ballot papers marked below-the-line are forwarded progressively to a central scrutiny centre in each capital city where scrutiny of these votes takes place.

The below-the-line preference numbering of each ballot paper is entered into a computerised scrutiny system. The above-the-line totals for each party and group are then imported into the same system which is programmed to distribute the preferences. For the above-the-line votes the system uses the group voting tickets lodged with the AEC to determine the preference distributions.

The system will calculate the quota, transfer surpluses and distributes preferences, eliminating unsuccessful candidates, to produce the result of the Senate election in each state and territory.

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 seat is conducted publicly by the DRO. The declaration of the Senate election for each state and territory is conducted by the respective Australian Electoral Officer (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.

Further information

Contact the AEC National Media Unit or the media liaison officer in your state or territory.