The Senate counting process

The Australian Senate count is among the world’s most complex upper house counts. There are a number of security measures and checks in place at every step of the process. Every Senate ballot paper, and every preference marked by a voter, is manually keyed in and checked by a human operator - with party-appointed scrutineers able to observe this process.

Once the millions of preferences marked on Senate ballot papers are manually entered and verified by AEC staff, the task of distributing those preferences is necessarily performed by AEC created and owned, and independently certified, software. This method of distributing Senate preferences allows Senators to be elected in time to take their seats in Parliament and has been successfully applied for previous federal elections.

Each election, detailed reports of the Senate distribution of preferences are made publicly available for further manual scrutiny, both internal and external, confirming the accuracy of the process undertaken.

Senate ballot paper process

Senate ballot paper process

  • After 6pm on election day, all polling places complete a first preference count of Senate ballot papers at the polling place.
  • Indicative first preference results are published to the AEC Tally Room and AEC federal election app.
  • Ballot papers are sent to the divisional out-posted centres where they are reconciled, counted again, batched and sent to the CSS in each state and territory.
  • At the Central Senate Security (CSS), all ballot papers are scanned for entry into the semi‑automated scrutiny process.
  • The semi-automated scrutiny process captures preferences using a combination of optical character recognition software and manual verification by a human operator.
  • Scrutineers may view the entire verification process and, if they wish, raise challenges for adjudication by the Australian Electoral Officer (AEO).
  • The preferences captured during the semi‑automated scrutiny process are stored in electronic tamper‑proof files.
  • These files are transferred to the AEC progressively, which loads the preferences and reports the progress results.
  • Once all ballot paper data is received at the AEC it is transferred to the count system where the distribution of preferences is run and final results determined
  • The final results are published to the AEC Tally Room.
  • Lastly, ballot papers are sent to secure long-term storage.

Semi-automated scrutiny process

The ballot paper workflow contains multiple layers of checking to ensure preferences captured are exactly as recorded on the ballot papers. These are outlined below.

Semi-automated scrutiny process

  1. Computer recognition (OCR/ICR/OMR) reads the preferences and other marks from the image of a scanned ballot paper.

    1a) A data entry operator populates any preferences that were unable to be read with high confidence by the computer recognition in step 1. The data entry operator also manually checks the marks read by computer recognition (for example a voter potentially identifying themselves on a ballot paper) for AEC determination.

    Step 1 and 1a make up the first pass of the data capture process.
  2. A separate data entry operator manually enters a complete capture of all preferences marked on the ballot paper and reviews all other marks, this is the second pass of the data capture. The operator at this station cannot see what has been previously captured in step 1 and 1a.
  3. If the data from the first pass data capture does not match the data from the second pass data capture the ballot paper is escalated for adjudication by a supervisor. Step 1a and step 2 can escalate to this supervisor for any other reason (e.g. unable to interpret a mark, scrutineer challenge etc.)
  4. If a ballot paper is potentially informal or has a sequence break down, the ballot paper is escalated for further adjudication to another human operated queue. If a preference on a ballot paper has been misread, it is likely this will cause a sequence break down or informality, ensuring the ballot paper will be routed to this queue for further analysis.
  5. AEC will make any final adjudication on ballot papers and are the only queues authorised to determine a ballot paper is informal for complex escalations.

At all workstations where there are decisions being made (3, 4 and 5) there are larger monitors to improve visibility for scrutineers.

System integrity and assurance

After each electoral event the AEC completes an assessment of the event, including identifying areas for improvement. From this the systems used are upgraded and fully tested prior to the next election.

EasyCount – Senate (ECS), the Ballot Paper Reconciliation System (BPRS) and the Senate Scanning Solution (SSS) (currently supplied by Fujifilm) all go through testing. This includes unit testing (completed by the developers), function testing (to ensure all components of the system work) and User Acceptance Testing (UAT) to ensure the systems meets the defined requirements. Other, non-functional, testing includes capacity and penetration testing.

Once all systems are built and tested individually, they are tested simultaneously to show they integrate correctly.

Once all systems are shown to accurately work together, the AEC performs further testing of the Senate Scanning Solution in each state and validates the data and flows. After this process is completed, all states process at the same time to ensure the eight (one for each state and territory) production environments operate effectively at the same time.

After the close of nominations, and before polling day, Production Verification Testing ensures the scanners and templates for each ballot paper are correctly set up. Sample ballot papers are used with the resulting data sent from Fujifilm to the AEC, to again test the entire production environment before scanning of senate ballot papers commences, in the days following polling day.

How long does the Senate count take?

The Senate count is more complex than the count for the House of Representatives and takes longer to complete. This is because it involves the election of multiple members for each state and territory, which means that candidates must receive a quota or proportion of votes to be elected rather than a simple majority.

Before a quota can be determined all Senate ballot papers need to be assessed for formality, so while counting of first preferences begins on election night, the full count cannot be completed until all ballot papers are assessed, which can be up to five weeks after the election.

Role of Scrutineers at Central Senate Scrutiny

Scrutineers are able to monitor the processing of Senate ballot papers at CSS centres in each state and territory capital city.

To accommodate scrutineers and provide greater visibility of ballot papers in decision queues larger monitors will be provided. Candidates are entitled to appoint one scrutineer for each AEC officer involved in the central Senate scrutiny. Fujifilm staff are not AEC officers and therefore do not count towards determining the number of scrutineers allowed.

CSS site operations: scrutineer access and requirements

The CSS sites operate after election day and are located at Fujifilm premises. While scrutineers will have full access to the areas of the site related to the senate scrutiny, they will not have access to areas of the site unrelated to senate processing. Fujifilm requires all visitors to their facilities to adhere to safety requirements.

  • Each site has a scrutineer coordinator.
  • Each site has a designated location for scrutineer induction.
  • Scrutineers are required to participate in two inductions: one from the AEC regarding the scrutiny and one from Fujifilm regarding safety at the site.
  • Scrutineers will be issued with identification passes which they are required to wear when on the CSS site.
  • AEC staff are required to wear colour-coded bibs.
  • At the CSS site scrutineers will be accompanied at all times.
  • At some CSS sites hearing protection may be required.
  • Areas are zoned for security and safety purposes and clearly signed.
  • The use of mobile phones is not permitted in ballot paper secure work zones.
  • Eating and drinking is not permitted in the ballot paper secure work zones (a water bottle with a lid is allowed).
  • Fujifilm will have security guards on site.
Updated: 16 July 2021