Candidates Handbook: Counting the votes

Updated: 26 March 2018

The Act

  • Part XVIII, 'The scrutiny'

An understanding of the AEC's counting procedures will help you, as a candidate, know what to expect as the results of the election unfold. This chapter details how the scrutiny or count is approached for the House of Representatives and Senate.

On election night

The counting of ordinary votes begins in each polling place immediately after the poll closes at 6pm on election day. Ordinary votes at a polling place are votes cast by electors within their division on election day.

In relation to pre-poll votes cast as ordinary votes in the lead up to polling day;

  • HoR votes will be counted on election night
  • Senate votes will be counted commencing on the Monday after election day.

Tally Room

The AEC hosts a website election results system known as the Tally Room (TR), which provides election information and results in a user-friendly format.

The TR allows people visiting the website on election night and the weeks following to access progressive House of Representatives results and figures from the Senate count for all states and territories, together with a comprehensive range of summary and analysis screens. The TR produces approximately 1 200 individual pages of results on election night and more than 20 000 pages in the post-election period. These results are updated regularly on election night and in the post-election period.

House of Representatives count on election night

Ballot papers are initially sorted by the polling officials into first preference votes for each candidate and informal ballot papers. The results are then tabulated and the first preference vote figures for each candidate are telephoned to the relevant DRO.

Divisional staff then enter these figures for each polling place in their division into the national computerised Election Management System which, in turn, updates the Tally Room (TR). The TR can be accessed on the AEC website.

Indicative two-candidate-preferred (TCP)

On the completion of the count of first preferences for the House of Representatives at each polling place, the ARO (or Officer in Charge) must, as directed by the relevant AEO (in accordance with s.274(2A) of the Act), conduct an indicative distribution of preferences on a two-candidate-preferred (TCP) basis.

The TCP count shows where preferences have been distributed to the probable final two candidates in an election. It must be remembered that this count is only an indicative result of the election in a division. It is possible that early, absent and mobile votes, counted after election day, could alter the outcome.

The ballot papers for the two nominated candidates are set aside and the ballot papers for the remaining candidates are distributed to one of the two nominated candidates according to who is more preferred or gets the 'best preference'.

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 added to the first preference figures for the Labor candidate. Conversely, a ballot paper that showed '1' Independent '2' Liberal (etc.) would be added to the first preference figures for the Liberal candidate.

Like the count of first preference votes, this result is telephoned through to the DRO, who enters it into the Election Management System. This will update the TR, which is available on the AEC website.

Senate count on election night

On election night, the ARO counts first preference votes on the Senate ballot papers – above the line, below the line and the total number which are obviously informal. A single figure for each group and each ungrouped candidate is reported.

Senate 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 a general impression of the Senate results on election night.

The Senate count on election night begins at the same time as the TCP count for the House of Representatives. Results from the Senate count are telephoned through to the DRO, and group totals and ungrouped results are entered into the Election Management System in the same way as House of Representatives votes.

Referendum count on election night

The counting of referendum ballot papers also begins on election night. The 'Yes' and 'No' votes are counted, telephoned through to the DRO and entered into the Election Management System.

After election night

Fresh scrutiny or recheck

The initial scrutiny conducted at the polling place on election night is routinely followed by a 'fresh scrutiny' (HoR and referendum) and DRO Senate count conducted at a divisional out-posted centre in the days following election day. The exact time will be advised by the DRO.

At this stage, some HoR ballot papers earlier treated as informal may be admitted to the scrutiny by the DRO, and some ballot papers originally treated as formal may be reclassified as informal.

A full distribution of preferences is conducted in every House of Representatives division, even where a candidate already has an absolute majority of first preference votes. The result of this full distribution of preferences is used to calculate the two-candidate-preferred statistics.

Scrutineers who have been appointed by a candidate for the division may be present during the fresh scrutiny or count. The number of scrutineers present is limited to one per candidate for each AEC staff member involved in the count.

Senate scrutiny

After the DRO Senate count, the AEO conducts the scrutiny and assesses the formality of Senate ballot papers at the CSS for the state/territory. The Senate scrutiny and the distribution of preferences are conducted using a computer application. The computerised system calculates the quota, distributes preferences and determines the result of the Senate election.

This system provides full accountability and an audit trail, including reports for inspection by scrutineers.

The relevant AEO notifies all Senate candidates by letter of the location and hours of operation of the CSS centre in that state or territory.

Declaration votes

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.

In the days following election day, a 'declaration vote exchange' is carried out between the divisions within each state and territory, where declaration votes are physically passed on to the relevant division. Declaration votes received on behalf of divisions in another state or territory or overseas are sent to the relevant divisions. Once the declaration votes are received and processed in the home division, the counting of these votes can begin.

Postal Votes

For federal elections and by-elections, the legislation requires that postal vote envelopes containing the ballot papers need to be received by the appropriate DRO on or before 13 days after election day. These votes are included in the count if:

  • the vote has been cast before 6pm on election day
  • the vote is received by the DRO within 13 days of election day.

For this reason, the counting of postal votes is an ongoing process for 13 or more days after election day.