Scrutineers Handbook: The Scrutiny

Updated: 1 June 2018

The Act

  • Part XVI, 'The polling'
  • Part XVII, 'Special provisions relating to the polling in Antarctica'
  • Part XVIII, 'The scutiny'
  • Schedule 3, 'Rules for the conduct of a preliminary scrutiny of declaration votes'

The Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984

  • Part VI, 'Scrutiny of a referendum'

As a scrutineer, you may be present at the checking and counting of the ballot papers after the close of polling – the scrutiny of House of Representatives and referendum ballot papers and the count of Senate ballot papers. This chapter details what you can and cannot do as a scrutineer during the counting process. It also describes the AEC's procedures so you will know what to expect as you observe the counting of ballot papers on election night and in the days following.

What scrutineers do

The Act, ss.264 and 265

As a scrutineer, you have certain roles under the Act. These roles are outlined below.

Sealing and opening ballot boxes

You have the right to inspect the condition of, and observe the sealing (if relevant) and opening of ballot boxes. Ballot boxes containing votes taken by mobile polling teams are forwarded to the DRO for counting. These ballot boxes are opened and the scrutiny of the HoR and Referendum ballot papers and the DRO Senate count conducted on election night or as soon as possible after election night.

Counting ballot papers

You have the right to observe the counting of ballot papers on election night by AROs, including the two-candidate-preferred count conducted after the counting of first preference votes. You may also view the flow of preferences from other candidates, but only if this does not unreasonably delay the scrutiny.

You may observe the counting of ballot papers following election night, including the fresh scrutiny of HoR and referendum ballot papers, the DRO Senate count, the preliminary and further scrutiny of declaration votes, and any recount of ballot papers.


You may object to the admission or rejection of any ballot paper at a scrutiny. The officer conducting the scrutiny will then decide whether the vote is formal or informal and mark the ballot paper as 'admitted' or 'rejected'. The officer may reject a ballot paper as informal even if no scrutineer has objected to it.

Note: The count of Senate ballot papers carried out at polling places is not considered a scrutiny. This means that the ARO has no legislative authority to make decisions on the formality of Senate ballot papers and scrutineers cannot challenge the formality of Senate ballot papers at this point. The ARO will, however, separate out the obviously informal ballot papers which cannot be allocated to any group because they are blank, indicate more than one first preference or do not indicate a first preference for any candidate. The scrutiny of Senate ballot papers is undertaken at the CSS centre in the weeks following election day. Scrutineers have the opportunity to challenge to the formality of ballot papers at the CSS.

Countersigning endorsements

Electoral officers bundle ballot papers and other materials relating to the election for dispatch to the divisional offices. You may countersign endorsements of the contents on any parcels of ballot papers, and countersign statements setting out the number of first preference votes for each candidate and the number of informal ballot papers.

Coming and going

You may come and go during the scrutiny, provided there is never more than one scrutineer per candidate per polling official engaged in the scrutiny at any one time.

Remember, you must return your Identification Badge if you leave the counting centre at any time.

What scrutineers must not do

During the scrutiny, you must not:

  • handle ballot papers in any way, or
  • unreasonably delay or interfere with the counting of votes.

While you have the right to observe all stages of the HoR scrutiny and challenge the formality decisions made by scrutiny staff on HoR ballot papers, it is the duty of the ARO to ensure the election results from the polling place are delivered in an orderly and timely way.

On election night

The counting of ordinary votes begins in each polling place immediately after the poll closes at 6pm on election day.

When the HoR election and Senate election are held at the same time, the HoR ballot papers are counted before Senate ballot papers.

On election night, polling officials are required to complete four main tasks after the close of polls:

  • count the first preferences on the HoR ballot papers,
  • conduct a two-candidate-preferred count of the HoR ballot papers (note: this is an indicative count only),
  • count the first preferences on the Senate ballot papers, and
  • sort counterfoils from declaration votes and reconcile with unused declaration ballot papers (the ballot boxes containing declaration envelopes remain sealed until the ballot boxes are returned to the DRO).

The counting of ordinary HoR and referendum votes taken at pre-poll voting centres also commences as soon as possible after 6pm on election day.

All proceedings at the count must be open to you. The scrutiny may be adjourned from time to time as might be necessary until the counting of the votes is complete.

Informal votes

A ballot paper is generally considered informal if it is not filled out correctly in accordance with the Act and the instructions on the ballot paper. It therefore cannot be included in the scrutiny. The formality of ballot papers is covered in more detail under the heading 'Formality of votes'.

House of Representatives count on election night

The HoR 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 into the national computerised Election Management System, which in turn updates the Tally Room (TR) on the AEC website.

Indicative two-candidate-preferred

On the completion of the count of first preferences for the HoR at each polling place, the 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 basis. This provides an indication of the likely outcome of the election in each division.

The procedure for the indicative two-candidate-preferred count is outlined below.

  • After nominations close, the AEC selects two candidates in each division to whom preferences of all other candidates will be distributed indicatively on election night. These candidates are chosen in most cases on the basis of previous election results.
  • The names of the two candidates are not made public before the close of polling. At each polling place, the ARO announces the names of the two candidates at the commencement of the count.
  • Polling officials sort the ballot papers into first-preference piles for each of the candidates. The ballot papers for the two nominated candidates are removed to a secure area and the ballot papers for the remaining candidates are notionally allocated 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 that has '1' Democrats, '2' Independent, '3' Labor and then '4' Liberal will be allocated to the Labor candidate. A ballot paper that showed '1' Independent '2' Liberal (etc) would be allocated to 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, which in turn updates the TR on the AEC website.

As soon as the scrutiny of ordinary votes ends, all the ballot papers from the polling place are placed in sealed parcels and delivered to the DRO. The full distribution of preferences is conducted by the DRO in the weeks after election day.

Senate count on election night

On election night, the total number of Senate ballot papers, the first preference votes – above the line and below the line and the total obviously informal – are counted. A first preference 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 may begin at the same time as the two candidate-preferred count for the HoR depending on the number of staff in the polling place. 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 HoR votes.

On election night, the only figures released for the Senate are the first preference votes for groups and ungrouped candidates.

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 re-check

House of Representatives after election night

The initial scrutiny of HoR and Referendum ballot papers conducted at the polling place on election night is routinely followed by a 'fresh scrutiny' conducted at a divisional out-posted centre in the days following election day. The fresh scrutiny is a re-check of all ordinary votes received from every polling place, pre-poll voting centre and mobile polling team within a division.

The fresh scrutiny also includes a two-candidate-preferred count, to confirm the TCP result from election night. This count is conducted in essentially the same manner as the indicative two-candidate-preferred count conducted in polling places on election night.

Following the fresh scrutiny, a full distribution of preferences is also carried out for each polling place.

DRO Senate count after election night

In the week following election day, the DRO re-counts the Senate ballot papers from polling places and does a count of ballot papers from mobile polling teams, pre-poll voting centres and declaration votes. The count is a total of all ballot papers, a total first preference figure for each group for ballot papers marked above the line and a total count of ballot papers marked below the line (grouped and ungrouped candidates) and a total of obviously informal ballot papers. The result is transmitted to the AEO and the ballot papers are then despatched in secure containers by approved means of transport to the AEO at the CSS centre. The exact time of the DRO re-count will be advised by the DRO.

Any person approved by the officer conducting the count may be present, as well as duly appointed scrutineers.

Central Senate Scrutiny (CSS)

After the DRO Senate count, the AEO conducts the Senate scrutiny and assesses the formality of ballot papers at the CSS centre in each state and 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.

Referendum count after election night

After election night, a fresh scrutiny of ordinary referendum ballot papers must be undertaken to check that on election night all ballot papers were correctly allocated. Although not required under the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984, it is AEC policy to conduct a fresh scrutiny of all declaration vote referendum ballot papers.

Scrutiny of 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.

The DRO and staff in the counting centre conduct the scrutiny of declaration votes in two stages:

  • the preliminary scrutiny of postal vote certificates and declaration envelopes containing early, absent or provisional votes to determine whether each person is entitled to a vote, and
  • the further scrutiny where the ballot papers admitted to the scrutiny are taken out of their envelopes and then treated in the same way as ordinary ballot papers.

Declaration exchange

In the days following election day, a 'declaration vote exchange' is carried out between the divisions, where declaration votes are physically passed on to the relevant division. Declaration votes received on behalf other divisions are sent to the division for which the voter is claiming enrolment (the 'home' division). Once the declaration votes are received in the home division, the counting of these votes can begin.

Preliminary scrutiny

The preliminary scrutiny of declaration vote envelopes determines which declaration votes are admissible and can proceed to further scrutiny for HoR and referendum or a DRO Senate count. The preliminary scrutiny of early and postal declaration vote envelopes can begin on the Monday before election day. This assists the DRO to begin the further scrutiny of these types of declaration votes promptly after election day.

Early and postal declaration vote envelopes are checked to ensure they have been signed by the voter. For early declaration vote envelopes, names are marked off the certified list of voters.

Electronic Certified List (ECL) devices will be used to assist divisional staff in conducting preliminary scrutiny.

No declaration vote envelope can be opened or ballot paper scrutinised before the close of the poll.

The DRO will contact candidates before the preliminary scrutiny to advise times, dates and locations of preliminary scrutinies. A notice must be displayed in the DRO's office no later than 4pm on the day before the preliminary scrutiny is to begin.

Postal vote certificates

Section 228(5A) of the Act requires the DRO to wait for up to 13 days after election day for any outstanding postal votes. These votes are included in the count if they were cast before 6pm on election day and are received within 13 days after the close of the poll. For this reason, the counting of postal votes is an ongoing process for up to 13 days after election day.

A postal ballot paper will be accepted for further scrutiny if the DRO is satisfied:

  • that the elector is enrolled (or entitled to be enrolled) for the division,
  • that the vote contained in the envelope was recorded prior to the close of the poll (which is done by checking the date the witness has signed),
  • that the signature on the postal vote certificate is valid, and
  • that the signature is correctly witnessed.

Following the removal of signature checking requirements from the Act, the AEC implemented an authentication checking system to confirm that the person who submits a Postal Voting Application (PVA) is the same person who completes the Postal Voting Certificate (PVC). This is to be done via a security question and answer process, with signature checking as a back-up. PVCs must not be rejected if the security answer is incorrect or not provided, as it is not a mandatory field and does not invalidate the PVC.

If there is doubt that the signature on a PVC is that of the elector, the DRO must check the signature against the most recent enrolment record (if any) of the elector's signature available.

Early, absent and provisional vote declaration envelopes

The requirements for the preliminary scrutiny of early (pre-poll), absent and provisional votes are essentially the same as those for the preliminary scrutiny of postal votes.

A declaration vote will be accepted for further scrutiny if the DRO is satisfied:

  • that the elector is enrolled (or entitled to be enrolled) for the division
  • that the certificate or declaration has been properly signed and witnessed.

Votes will not be admitted where:

  • the elector was provisionally enrolled at 17 years of age but had not turned 18 on or before election day
  • the elector's claim to be enrolled was received by the AEC after the close of rolls for the election.

A vote will generally be admitted if clerical, computer error or omission was responsible for the elector's name or address being excluded from the electoral roll.

Antarctic electors

An Antarctic elector will have their vote and details recorded as an early vote by the AEO for Tasmania. The AEO will sign the early vote certificate instead of the elector.

Further scrutiny declaration votes

Declaration votes do not get counted on election night. They are counted in a counting centre in the period following election night, after they have passed through the preliminary scrutiny. At the further scrutiny, the DRO opens the declaration vote envelopes that have passed the preliminary scrutiny. The ballot papers are extracted, without being unfolded or inspected, and placed in a ballot box. They are then counted following the same procedures as after 6pm on election day.

The DRO will advise candidates of the times, dates and locations of the further scrutiny. Scrutineers have the same rights and responsibilities at a further scrutiny in a counting centre as they have at the scrutiny of ballot papers in a polling place after 6pm on election day.