Electoral Newsfile 102: Federal Election 2001 - The Votes and The Count

Updated: 23 March 2011

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 82%) 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 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. At the last election there were 488 671 postal votes cast, this represented approximately 4.22% of the total number of votes.

The AEC must wait 13 days after polling day to receive postal votes before it can finalise counting. This ensures that electors in remote areas and overseas are not disenfranchised.

Pre-poll votes

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

Some of these special centres stay open on polling day to take the votes of those electors travelling interstate.

At the last election there were 692 377 pre-poll votes taken across the country. This represented approximately 5.98% of the total number of votes.

Provisional Votes

A provisional vote is a vote cast in circumstances where an elector's name cannot be found on the electoral roll but the elector claims the right to vote; or the name has already been marked off the roll but the elector claims they have not voted before in the election. The vote cannot be counted until a careful check of enrolment records and entitlements has been made.

Electors making a postal, pre-poll or provisional vote must complete a declaration giving their personal details. This will be checked by divisional staff before the votes are counted.

Mobile polling votes

In the days preceding polling day, the AEC also visits some hospitals, nursing homes, prisons 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 776 859 absent votes cast (6.7% of the total votes cast).

(If a voter is interstate on polling day and wishes to vote they will have to visit a special pre-poll voting centre or an AEC Divisional Office.)

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% + 1) 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 an absolute majority.

The Senate

The Senate uses a proportional representation voting system and candidates must gain a quota to be elected.

The Senate ballot paper has two sections. An elector can either vote above the line or below the line, but not both. However, if the elector completes both sections formally, the below the line section takes precedence.

Above the line: if a voter chooses to vote above the line, the number `1' must be written in one of the boxes above the line. All other boxes on the paper should be left blank. If an elector votes in the top section the vote will be counted in the way chosen by the group or party, and as notified to the AEC. This is called a group ticket vote and information is available at all polling places showing how each party or group has decided to have its preferences distributed.

Below the line: if a voter chooses to vote below the line, all the boxes in the bottom section of the ballot paper must be numbered sequentially in the order of the elector's choice.

The count

The first preference count

At 6pm the doors to all the 7 703 polling places close. There are no 'late votes'. Each polling place manager closes the doors at the stroke of 6pm local time. 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, ie. 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. They are relayed to the AEC's election results system on the website and are also displayed on the tally board at the National Tally Room.

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, '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 and the virtual tally room website at www.aec.gov.au.

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. First preference votes only are counted on polling night.

In cases where the AEC has selected the wrong 2 candidates, the TCP result will not be displayed.

Senate Count

Senate ballot papers will be counted in the following three categories at scrutinies:

  1. Those marked formally above-the-line(ATL);
  2. Those marked formally below-the-line (BTL);
  3. Those obviously informal.

All formal BTL Senate ballot papers are forwarded to a central scrutiny in each capital city for entry into the computerised Senate scrutiny system. The formal ATL and formal BTL votes are tallied by the computerised system, the quota is calculated and preferences are distributed to produce the Senate election results.

Using the computerised system means the time it takes to finalise the Senate scrutiny is cut virtually in half. At the 1998 election it took just over three weeks to count the Senate votes in all States and Territories, compared with the six weeks it has taken at previous elections.

The election night computer system

Once 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 150 Divisional Offices are 'on-line', results data will be available in the National Tally Room (NTR) and from the virtual tally room almost immediately. First results are expected from about 6.30pm (Canberra time).

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. AEC staff will be available at the NTR in Canberra to provide assistance in using the AEC's computerised election night management system screens.

Virtual Tally Room

On election night the AEC hosts a 'virtual tally room' (an election results system) from their website. The election website can be accessed through www.aec.gov.au. From this website people can access results from their home computers as they are received in the NTR.

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 other 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;
  • for 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 NTR. 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 2001 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%.

However, this sort of comparison can be misleading. At every past election the government candidate has always achieved a poorer result from this particular polling place – and better results from others. At this polling place the result has usually been 47% for the government candidate and 43% for the rival – at other polling places the difference was larger.

Using matched polling places rather than the swing of 10% indicated by the earlier method, we can confidently estimate the swing to be more like 2%. On this analysis rather than appearing to lose the seat, the government candidate is likely to retain it.

Matched polling places and the two candidate preferred count

The matched polling place method is applied in the AEC's election night computer system in two ways: to first preference votes and also to the two candidate preferred (TCP) figures.

For first preference votes, the number of votes for the current election for each candidate is accumulated as each polling place is entered into the system. As each polling place is entered, the system extracts the result from the previous election, and when the divisional results are displayed the percentage of the current votes received by each candidate is compared with the percentage from the previous election for the same polling places. The difference between the two percentages is expressed as a percentage swing to or away from the candidate. (Where an independent candidate, or a political party is contesting a division for the first time, there will be no historical votes and the swings displayed for this candidate will be the same as their first preference percentage.)

The matched polling place method as applied to first preference votes is a useful guide, and in cases where one candidate is likely, on the basis of the matched first preference swing, to get more than 50% of first preferences, it is sufficient to call the result in that division. However, in those divisions where preferences need to be distributed to determine the outcome, the first preference swing is not enough.

The use of matched polling places for the two candidate counts works as follows.

As the indicative TCP vote for the current election is entered, the system combines the historical and current TCP votes in the same way as it does for first preferences.

The system calculates a TCP swing on the basis of the sample of polling places entered in the system, and making use of the tendency for swings to be uniform within a division. This swing is then applied to the final TCP result for that division from the previous election, giving us the predicted TCP swing for each candidate.

State of the Parties at Issue of Writ for the 2001 Federal Election

House of Representatives
  1998 Election At issue of writ
LP 64 63
NP 16 15
ALP 67 67
IND 1 3
TOTAL 148 148
  Elected 1998 Full Senate
LP 15 31
NP 1 3
CLP 1 1
ALP 17 29
DEM 4 9
HAR 1 1
HAN 1 1
TOTAL 40 76

Australian Electoral Commission Contacts

Media Liaison

Members of the media are asked to use the Media Liaison and Head Office contact numbers listed rather than the general enquiry number 13 23 26 which appears on AEC advertising.

Assistant Commissioner
Information and Research
Brien Hallett (acting) (02) 6271 4477

Director, Information
Anthea Wilson (acting) (02) 6271 4415

Assistant Directors, Information
Margaret Meneghel (acting) (02) 6271 4548
Roger Wills (acting) (02) 6271 4431
Susie Smith (02) 6271 4529

Editor, Newsfile
Shirley Weber (02) 6271 4720

State/Territory Head Offices

The administration of the 2001 Federal Election 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
David Farrell Ph. (02) 9375 6333
Fx. (02) 9281 9384
South Australia
Dr Christopher Drury Ph. (08) 8237 6555
Fx. (08) 8231 2664
Daryl Wight Ph. (03) 9285 7171
Fx. (03) 9285 7178
Alex Stanelos Ph. (03) 6235 0500
Fx. (03) 6234 4268
Bob Longland Ph. (07) 3834 3400
Fx. (07) 3831 7223
Northern Territory
Bill Shepheard Ph. (08) 8981 1477
Fx. (08) 8981 7964
Western Australia
Andrew Moyes Ph. (08) 9470 7299
Fx. (08) 9472 3551
Australian Capital Territory
Jeff Howarth Ph. (02) 6249 7908
Fx. (02) 6248 7559

National Enquiry Service – 13 23 26.