Scrutineers Handbook: Allocation of preferences

Updated: 1 June 2018

6. Allocation of preferences

The Act

  • Part XVIII, 'The scutiny'

This chapter describes in some detail the different processes during the scrutiny for determining the successful candidates. It will be most useful to those who are acting as scrutineers for the first time at this election. The better your understanding of the voting system and counting procedures, the more effective you are likely to be as a scrutineer.

As a scrutineer, you have an essential role to play in observing that all due process is followed on behalf of your candidate until the result is declared.

Fresh scrutiny and DRO Senate Count

After election day, upon receipt of ballot papers from the officers-in-charge/AROs, the DRO conducts a fresh scrutiny, or re-check, of ballot papers. This proceeds separately for the HoR ballot and the DRO Senate Count.

More than 85 per cent of the total HoR formal vote, including early votes, is counted on election night. The remainder, comprising of postal, absent, provisional and early declaration votes, cannot be counted until after election night.

The actual scrutiny of Senate ballot papers is done by the AEO at the CSS centre in the weeks following election night. Scrutineers have the same rights and responsibilities at the CSS as they have at a HoR scrutiny undertaken by the DRO.

House of Representatives

The Act, s.274

The system of voting used for HoR elections is a full preferential voting system. The voter must indicate a preference for all candidates on the ballot paper. This system has been used in Australian federal elections since 1918.

The system of counting votes for the HoR requires a candidate to obtain an absolute majority (more than 50 per cent of the formal votes) to be elected.

Firstly, all the number '1' formal first preference votes are counted for each candidate. If no candidate has an absolute majority of first preference votes, counting of votes then proceeds as outlined below.

A full distribution of preferences takes place in every division, even where a candidate has an absolute majority of first preference votes.

Step 1: The candidates are ranked according to how many formal first preference votes they have received in the election.

Step 2: If no candidate has an absolute majority, the candidate who has received the fewest first preference votes is excluded and all the ballot papers held by that candidate are transferred to the continuing candidates, according to the next available preference expressed on each ballot paper.

Step 3: The process of excluding the candidate who has the fewest votes continues until a single candidate has an absolute majority of the votes.

Step 4: The candidate who has an absolute majority of votes is elected.

Example of a distribution of preferences: Division of Lowe – (2007 Federal Election)
Marc (GRN)
Murphy John
Shailer Bill
Tsolakis Jim
Count Votes % Votes % Votes % Votes % Total
First 6 774 8.61 38 766 49.27 1 616 2.05 31 518 40.06 78 674
Second 230 14.23 572 35.40 EXCLUDED 814 50.37 1 616
Total 7 004 8.90 39 338 50.00     32 332 41.10 78 674
Third EXCLUDED 5 798 82.78     1 206 17.22 7 004
Total     45 136 57.37     33 538 42.63 78 674

In cases where the distribution of preferences is required to determine the result, this does not normally occur until 13 days have elapsed after election day, to allow for the receipt of postal votes.

The AEO for a state or territory may, however, direct a DRO to conduct a provisional scrutiny of preferences as part of the fresh scrutiny.

A simplified example of how the system works is shown on the following page.

Two-candidate-preferred count

The result of the full distribution of preferences is used to calculate the two-candidate-preferred statistics.

Two-party-preferred count

In divisions that do not have Australian Labor Party (ALP) and Coalition candidates as the final two candidates, a 'Scrutiny for Information' is conducted to determine the two-party-preferred result.

A 'Scrutiny for Information', in these cases, is a notional distribution of preferences to find the result of preference flows to the ALP and Coalition candidates.

Tied result

If there is a tied result on the final count, there is an immediate fresh scrutiny of votes and a fresh scrutiny of all rejected declaration votes.

If one candidate then receives an absolute majority of votes, the DRO declares the result accordingly. If not, the DRO shall give to the Electoral Commissioner written notice that the election cannot be decided.

The Act, ss.274(9C) and 357(1A)

If the fresh scrutinies confirm the deadlock, the DRO advises the Electoral Commissioner that the election cannot be decided. The Electoral Commissioner must then file a petition disputing the election result with the Court of Disputed Returns.


The Act, s.273 and s.273A

A system of proportional representation is used to elect six senators from each state and two senators from each territory in a half-Senate election. The voting method used for Senate elections is an optional preferential system. At a Double Dissolution election, 12 Senators from each State are elected.

The AEO conducts the Senate scrutiny and the distribution of preferences by a computer process.

The essential features of the Senate system are as follows:

  1. To be elected, candidates must secure a quota of votes.
  2. Should a candidate gain an exact quota, they are declared elected and their ballot papers are set aside as finally dealt with. A candidate who receives more than a quota is said to have surplus votes.
  3. Should more than one candidate be elected at the same count, the candidate with the largest surplus is said to be elected first, the candidate with the second largest surplus is said to be elected second, and so on.
  4. For each candidate elected with a surplus, commencing with the candidate elected first, a transfer value is calculated on all their ballot papers.
  5. The transfer value is determined by dividing the number of surplus votes received by the candidate by the total number of ballot papers received by the candidate. The result will be a number between 0 and 1.
  6. All the candidate's ballot papers are then re-examined, and the number showing a next available preference for each continuing candidate is determined. For each continuing candidate, the number of ballot papers is multiplied by the transfer value. The resulting numbers, ignoring any fractional remainders, are added to the continuing candidates' respective progressive totals of votes.
  7. Where a transfer of ballot papers raises the number of votes obtained by a candidate up to the quota, that candidate is elected. No more ballot papers are transferred to that elected candidate at any subsequent count.
  8. When all surpluses have been distributed, and vacancies remain to be filled, and the number of continuing candidates exceeds the number of unfilled vacancies, exclusion of candidates commences.
  9. Steps (4), (5), and (6) are continued, as necessary, until either all vacancies are filled or the number of candidates continuing in the count is equal to the number of vacancies remaining to be filled. In the latter case, the remaining candidates are declared elected.

The quota

Senate candidates must gain a quota of the formal votes to be elected.

The quota is calculated by dividing the total number of formal ballot papers by one more than the number of vacancies, and then adding one to the result (ignoring any remainder).

Election below quota

If two candidates remain in the scrutiny and there is only one vacancy to fill, the continuing candidate with the larger number of votes is elected, even if that number is below the quota. This can happen if the election result is so close, and so many ballot papers have been set aside as exhausted, that it becomes mathematically impossible for any continuing candidate to reach a quota.

Tied result

The Act, s.273(17)

In the event candidates are tied for exclusion and there is no previous count where one candidate was in front of the other, the AEO is required to determine the order of exclusion. The order will be requested when the distribution of preferences is conducted.

In the event candidates are tied for election, the AEO has a casting vote but does not otherwise vote at the Senate election.