Electoral Newsfile 76: Federal Election 1998 - The Votes and the Count

Updated: 5 December 2007

This edition of Newsfile focuses on the release of results on election night. It is also designed to provide a general overview of the way in which votes are cast on the day and communicated to the Australian media and public on election night.

The votes

The nation actually votes in several different ways.

Ordinary votes

Most Australian electors (approximately 88%) cast an ordinary vote at their local polling booth, on polling day. All ordinary votes, for both the House of Representatives and the Senate, are counted on election night.

Postal votes

Electors, who cannot attend a polling place anywhere in the State or Territory for which they are enrolled on polling day can apply in writing for a postal vote. The Divisional Returning Officer (DRO) will then send them their ballot papers which must be posted back to the DRO before the close of polling.

Pre-poll votes

Electors who cannot attend a polling place on polling day can vote beforehand at an AEC office, or one of the special pre-poll voting centres set up before polling day.

Some of these special centres stay open polling day to take the votes of those electors travelling interstate. At the last election there were 785 608 postal votes and pre-poll votes taken across the country.

This represented approximately 7% of the total number of votes.

Mobile polling votes

In the days preceding polling day, the AEC also visits some hospitals, nursing homes and remote areas to collect votes.

Absent votes

Electors who are out of their division on polling day but still within their State or Territory may cast an absent vote at any polling place in that State or Territory. At the last election there were 637 989 absent votes cast (6% of the total votes cast).

(If a voter is interstate on polling day, they will have to visit a special pre-poll voting centre or an AEC office.)

NOTE: In each of these cases of postal, pre-poll and absent voting, voters must do more than simply fill in a ballot paper. They must first complete a declaration giving their personal details which are used to ascertain the person's entitlement to vote. This is done to ensure the integrity of the voting system. However it also has implications for the speed of the count as these details must be checked before the votes can be counted. This is why after polling day the counting of postal and other votes, often referred to as 'declaration' votes, is a slower process than counting the votes on polling night itself.

The system

The House of Representatives

Unlike some other electoral systems, notably those used in Britain and the United States, Australia has a preferential voting system for the House of Representatives. This means that Australians are required to express a preference, or a ranking (1,2,3…etc.), for all candidates standing for election in a division. The Australian electoral system is designed to elect the most preferred candidate, not just the one with the most first preferences.

To be elected to the House of Representatives a candidate must receive an absolute majority (50% plus one) of the formal votes cast in a division. (In Britain, by contrast, a candidate simply needs to get more votes than anyone else.)

Initially, all the first preference, or primary votes, for each candidate are counted. If a candidate receives more than 50% of all the formal primary votes, then that candidate is elected. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is excluded from the count and their votes are distributed to the remaining candidates in the count, according to the second preference shown by the voter (the voter's number '2'). The votes are totalled again to see if one candidate has achieved an absolute majority.

This process of distributing preferences continues until one candidate has achieved a majority.

The Senate

The Senate count is more complicated. Counting of first preferences begins on election night but the full count is not usually completed until several weeks after the election. The Senate uses a proportional representation voting system and candidates must gain a quota to be elected. For further information on the Senate count see the Electoral Pocketbook or access the AEC's Homepage at www.aec.gov.au.

The count

The first preference count

At 6pm the doors to all the 7 775 polling places close. There are no 'late votes'. Each polling place manager closes the doors at the stroke of 6pm. The counting of the votes then begins.

All stages of the count are observed by scrutineers who represent the candidates. The scrutineers can look, ask questions, but are not allowed to touch the ballot papers.

The first thing that happens is that AEC staff divide the green House of Representatives ballot papers into piles for each candidate, i.e. they look for where the voter has put the number '1' and sort the papers accordingly. These first preference votes are then counted for each candidate.

The polling place manager telephones these results through to the local divisional office where they are entered into the AEC's election night computer system and displayed on the tally board.

The two-candidate preferred (TCP) count

The two candidate preferred (TCP) figures show where preferences have been distributed to the final two candidates in an election.

The identification of the two nominated candidates is not made public prior to polling day so as to ensure that the AEC is not seen to be giving public endorsement to the perceived popularity of any candidates contesting the election.

The two candidates will, in most cases, be those who finished first and second or represent the parties that finished first and second, at the last general election. However, the AEC will use whatever other objective data is available to assist in making its decision.

In the TCP count AEC staff will look at the ballot papers and sort them into piles for the two candidates according to the order in which voters have given them preferences. For example, if the two nominated candidates are Labor and Liberal then a ballot paper which has '1' Democrats, '2' Independent and '3' Labor, and then '4' Liberal will be put on the Labor candidate's pile.

This whole process of doing a two-candidate preferred count on election night is a shortening of what happens in the divisional office after polling day during the formal distribution of preferences. It is designed to give an indication on election night, of who is likely to win a particular seat.

At the conclusion of the TCP count, the results will be entered into the election night computer system and displayed on the National Tally Board.

It must be remembered that this count is only an indicative result of the election in a division. It is possible that postal, pre-poll, absent and mobile votes, counted after polling day, could alter the outcome.

Senate ballot papers will be counted by a separate team in the polling place at the same time as the two-candidate preferred count is being conducted.

The election night computer system

After the votes are counted at each polling place after 6pm, the results are telephoned through to the divisional office where they are entered into the AEC's computer system. Because all of the AEC's 148 divisional offices are 'on-line', results data will be available in the NTR almost immediately.

In communicating the results of the election to the Australian public, members of the media will be assisted by the AEC's computer network, in addition to their own informal channels and computer packages.

The computer enquiry screens

The AEC provides the television networks and AAP with a direct feed of election results from the election night computer system. For most members of the media, access to results is gained through the enquiry screens of the computer system available at the NTR.

The AEC also provides terminals to the political parties at the NTR, and to the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition at a location of their choice.

The enquiry screens display the results in a number of ways for both the House of Representatives and Senate elections.

First preference results with swings, and two-candidate preferred results with swings can be displayed:

  • for each division;
  • by party for each State/Territory and the nation;
  • special screens display;
  • seats which have changed hands
  • or each party, the seats which are 'close' i.e. where the two-candidate preferred figure is between 47% and 53%;
  • the percentage of the vote counted in each State/Territory and the polling places counted in a division;
  • the informal vote by State/Territory; and
  • other demographic analyses.

Analysing the results and matched polling places

Over many elections, analysts have made an art form of interpreting the progressive figures as they enter the National Tally Room. In the past, as early results became available there were obvious biases because of the small size of the sample of results.

In 1990 the matched polling place method was introduced and added another element to election night analysis. The matched polling place method effectively eliminates bias after approximately 10-15% of the votes are counted in any particular division. At the 1998 election, the AEC's computer system will again provide swings based on matched polling places, as well as the two-candidate preferred count.

The matched polling place method relies on the empirical fact that swings to or from political parties or candidates tend not to vary greatly within electoral divisions. While swings can vary significantly across the nation, i.e. vary from State to State, and also between divisions within States, swings within divisions tend to be consistent across polling places in a particular electoral division.

Therefore, while the proportion of votes gained in each polling place by a candidate may vary by many percentage points, the change in the proportion of votes received by that candidate at each polling place tends to be almost the same.

For example, prior to using matched polling places, analysis of results may have gone something like this: at the conclusion of one election the government candidate finished with 55% of the first preference vote and the nearest rival had 35%. At the start of counting at the following election a polling place result comes in with the government candidate achieving 45% and the rival also 45% of the vote for that polling place. A reasonable conclusion, ignoring the possible biases mentioned above, would have been that there was a significant swing away from the government candidate – perhaps in the order of 10%.

AEC contacts

Central Office

Electoral Commissioner: Bill Gray (02) 6271 4400

Deputy Electoral Commissioner: Andy Becker (02) 6271 4410

Director, Information: Brien Hallett (02) 6271 4415

Assistant Directors, Information: Bernadette O'Meara (02) 6271 4548 | Silvana Puizina(02) 6271 4431

Editor, Newsfile: Margaret Meneghel (02) 6271 4505


The administration of federal elections in each State and Territory is under the control of the Australian Electoral Officer (AEO) for that State or Territory. An AEO for the ACT is temporarily appointed for each election.

AEOs may be contacted on the following numbers.
New South Wales Frances Howat Ph. (02) 9375 6333 Fx. (02) 9281 9384
Victoria David Muffet Ph. (03) 9285 7171 Fx. (03) 9285 7178
Queensland Bob Longland Ph. (07) 3834 3400 Fx. (07) 3831 7223
Western Australia Andrew Moyes Ph. (08) 9470 7299 Fx. (08) 9472 3551
South Australia Geoff Halsey Ph. (08) 8237 6555 Fx. (08) 8231 2664
Tasmania Nick Tall Ph. (03) 6235 0500 Fx. (03) 6234 4268
Northern Territory Kerry Heisner Ph. (08) 8981 1477 Fx. (08) 8981 7964
Australian Capital Territory William Hogan Ph. (02) 6271 497 Fx. (02) 6271 560

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