Scrutineers Handbook: Formality of votes

Updated: 1 June 2018

The Act

  • Part XVI, 'The polling'
  • Part XVIII, 'The scutiny'

The Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984

  • Part VI, 'Scrutiny of a referendum'

As a scrutineer, you have the right to challenge the admission or rejection of any ballot paper at the scrutiny. The grounds for a challenge may be the formality or informality of the ballot paper. You therefore need to know the difference between an informal vote and a formal vote.

For further information on the formality of votes, please refer to Ballot paper formality guidelines.

Stages of the scrutiny

The scrutiny of ballot papers has two stages:

  • an initial formality check, where votes that do not satisfy certain criteria are excluded, and
  • a subsequent examination of those votes that pass the formality check to determine which candidate has been elected.

Checking formality

To help decision makers correctly identify ballot papers as formal or informal, there are:

  • two formality tests that must be applied to all ballot papers,
  • five principles that must be applied to every ballot paper that passes the initial two tests, and
  • a set of guidelines that underpin these principles.

The ARO at the polling place, DRO at the Fresh scrutiny and the AEO for the Senate are the appropriate decision makers. To assist with the consistent application of the formality principles, decision makers should attempt to look at as many disputed ballot papers as possible at the one time.

If the polling place officials conducting the scrutiny of HoR or referendum ballot papers are in doubt about the formality of a ballot paper they will put it in a separate pile for the ARO to review.

If an ARO is unsure of the formality of any ballot paper, they should always include them with the other informal ballot papers.

All informal ballot papers are checked by the DRO, or the AEO in the case of Senate ballot papers, and by following the above process, the ARO ensures the DRO makes the decision on the formality of possibly contentious ballot papers.

Ballot paper formality tests

All ballot papers will be required to undergo two tests before progressing through formality checking. Failure of either of these tests will result in an informal ballot paper and no further formality checking will be required.

  • Is the ballot paper authentic?
  • Does the ballot paper identify the voter?

Authentic ballot papers

Generally a ballot paper will carry an official mark (watermark or printed security pattern) and the initials of the issuing officer.

However, ballot papers that do not carry these markings are not necessarily informal. They should be presented to the DRO in the case of HoR or Referendum ballot papers or to the AEO in the case of Senate ballot papers to decide on their formality.

Ballot paper alteration by polling officials

If a ballot paper does not contain the initials of the issuing officer or an official mark, it must be presented to the DRO if it is a HoR or Referendum ballot paper or the AEO in the case of Senate ballot papers who will determine its formality.

A fully printed ballot paper for a division may be altered to become a ballot paper for another division (i.e. the names of the candidates are crossed out by the issuing officer and the names of candidates for the other division are written in their place).

Where ballot papers have been altered by polling officials the vote is still formal if:

  • the political party names are not all correctly listed, for example the wrong party names are listed against the candidates or the party names are not listed.
  • a ballot paper has the names of any candidate spelt incorrectly, provided the identity of the candidate is still clear.
  • the ballot paper has the names of the candidates in the wrong order.
  • the candidate's surname is only listed on the altered ballot paper, as long as no two candidates share a surname.

NOTE: There is no legal requirement for a ballot paper prepared by an official under s.209(6) or s.209(7) of the Act to contain a party logo and therefore the absence of a logo does not make the ballot paper informal.

However, irrespective of the way the voter has voted, the ballot paper is informal if:

  • an altered ballot paper does not contain the names of every candidate for the division.
  • the candidate's given names only are listed on the altered ballot paper.

Alteration by polling officials

Example – ballot paper alteration by polling official

Sample formal ballot paper

This ballot paper is formal

All surnames are different. That is, the ballot paper has been altered with the candidates' surnames only and no two candidates share a surname.

Sample informal ballot paper

This ballot paper is informal

There is no candidate's name beside the third box.

Identification of voter

A ballot paper that has been marked in a way that could identify the voter should be presented to the DRO in the case of HoR and Referendum ballot papers and to the AEO in the case of Senate ballot papers to decide on formality.

Example – ballot paper that may identify a voter

Sample informal ballot paper

This ballot paper may be informal

If, in the opinion of the DRO, there is sufficient writing on the ballot paper to uniquely identify the voter, the ballot paper is informal.

Sample formal ballot paper

This ballot paper may be formal

If, in the opinion of the DRO there is not enough information to identify the voter the ballot paper is formal.

Ballot paper formality principles

There are five overarching principles that must be considered when interpreting the numbers on any ballot paper that has passed the initial two tests. They are:

Start from the assumption that the voter has intended to vote formally

The assumption needs to be made that an elector who has marked a ballot paper has done so with the intention to cast a formal vote.

Establish the intention of the voter and give effect to this intention

When interpreting markings on the ballot paper, these must be considered in line with the intention of the voter.

Err in favour of the franchise

In the situation where the voter has tried to submit a formal vote, i.e. the ballot paper is not blank or defaced, doubtful questions of form should wherever possible be resolved in the voter's favour.

Only have regard to what is written on the ballot paper

The intention of the voter must be unmistakeable, i.e. do not assume what the voter was trying to do if it's not clear – only consider what was written on the ballot paper.

The ballot paper should be construed as a whole

By considering the number in each square as one in a series, not as an isolated number, a poorly formed number MAY be recognisable as the one missing from the series.

Lawful numbering sequence

HoR and Senate ballot papers have different numbering sequence requirements. Whether a numbering sequence is lawful will depend on the type of ballot paper. However, there are some general principles that apply to the assessment of all ballot papers:

  • consecutive series of numbers
  • overwriting
  • acceptable forms of numbering
  • empty boxes
  • placement of votes
  • variations in handwriting, and
  • candidate name substitution.
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