By-election counting process

Updated: 23 November 2017

Below is an outline of the counting processes which must be followed under the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (the Electoral Act) before the AEC is able to declare the polls and return the writs to the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Counting on by-election night                            

Following the close of polls at 6pm the AEC will count all ordinary votes cast at static polling places and early voting centres located throughout the divsion.

The initial scrutiny and counting of the ballot papers occurs in the polling places, early voting centres and central scrutiny sites, and cannot start until after 6pm (AEDT) on polling day. This involves counting the first preferences marked on the ballot papers and conducting the two-candidate preferred (TCP) count.

Counting after by-election night – fresh scrutiny

By law, once by-election night counts are completed a ‘fresh scrutiny’ of votes is required. This is a re-check of all ordinary ballot papers received from every polling place, early voting centre and mobile polling team in the days following polling day.

It should be noted that there are a number of other concurrent and sequential steps relating to declaration votes (as outlined below) that must also be completed. Following the completion of fresh scrutiny, a full distribution of preferences is also carried out for each polling place.

Scrutiny of declaration votes

The AEC will start counting declaration votes (which include postal and provisional votes) on the Sunday following polling day. The counting of these votes necessarily takes longer than counting ordinary votes: preliminary scrutiny must first be conducted on the declaration envelopes against the electoral roll to determine eligibility, before further scrutiny of those ballot papers and then fresh scrutiny can take place. This process requires accuracy and is conducted meticulously.

Declaration of the poll

There are a number of hierarchical tests contained in section 284 of the Electoral Act (also reproduced in the editor’s notes in this release) before deciding when a declaration of the poll can be made. A clear result after fresh scrutiny usually allows the higher criteria to be met, however a close result will mean the lower criteria may need to be applied.

Previous recent by-elections

To place these processes in context, at the most recent federal by-election for the Division of North Sydney in 2015, polling day was 5 December and the declaration of the poll occurred on 22 December.

For the by-election in the Division of Canning in 2015, polling day was 19 September and the declaration of the poll occurred on 25 September.

Return of the writs

The writs will be returned to the Speaker of the House of Representatives soon after the declaration of the poll has taken place.

Hierarchical tests to enable declaration of the poll

Absolute majority of enrolment: The total first preference vote received by the leading candidate represents more than 50% of the total number of electors entitled to vote in the by-election.

If this does not meet the requirement for a declaration then:

Absolute majority of votes cast: The total first preference vote received by the leading candidate represents more than 50% of the formal first preference ordinary votes plus declaration votes issued.

If this does not meet the requirement for a declaration then:

Absolute majority of total first preferences: The total first preference vote received by the leading candidate represents more than 50% of the formal first preference ordinary votes plus declaration votes yet to be dealt with.

If this does not meet the requirement for a declaration then:

Absolute majority based on assured TCP candidates: If the candidate with the second most formal first preference votes has MORE formal first preference votes than the sum of the formal first preference votes obtained by all of the lower ranked candidates plus declaration votes yet to be dealt with, the final TCP Candidates ARE assured. That being the case the leading candidate can be declared elected based on the TCP result.

(The full distribution of preferences cannot legally commence until after the 13th day following the by-election in order for all eligible postal votes to be included.)

If this does not meet the requirement for a declaration then:

Absolute majority following a distribution of preferences: The total votes received by the leading candidate following a full distribution of preferences represents more than 50% of the formal votes.

The declaration of the polls will be conducted publicly by the DROs as soon as possible and in negotiation with the leading candidate. Advance notice of the declaration is also provided to unsuccessful candidates.

For the by-election, additional experienced AEC staff are being deployed to assist post polling day processing, and ensure that the result is known as soon as practicable. However, scrutiny duration will be largely determined by a combination of factors including the number of polling places, the size of total enrolment, elector turn-out, the number of candidates, and the level of informal voting.