How the Senate result is determined

Updated: 8 May 2024

The Senate count is more complicated than the count for the House of Representatives. Counting of first preferences begins on election night but the full count cannot be completed until several weeks after the election.

It should be noted that while the method of marking and counting Senate ballot papers has changed, the processes for determining the quota, transferring surplus votes and the exclusion of candidates, as outlined below, have not changed.

Working out the quota

To be elected to the Senate, a candidate needs to gain a quota of the formal votes. The quota is calculated by dividing the total number of formal ballot papers by the number of senators to be elected plus one, and then adding one to the result (ignoring any remainder).

Formula for determining a Senate quota

(Number of formal ballot papers / (Number of senators to be elected + 1)) rounded down + 1 = Senate quota

Example of determining a Senate quota

This is how the quota for NSW was calculated at the 2013 Senate election.

(4 376 143 / (6 + 1)) + 1 = 625 164

Therefore the quota, or number of votes required to be elected, in NSW at the 2013 federal election was 625 164.

A count explained

During the distribution of preferences, after each step where ballot papers are moved, they are counted. This is known as “a count”, there are many counts in a Senate election.

Counting the first preference votes

Ballot papers are sorted according to which group or ungrouped candidate has received the number '1' preference on each ballot paper. Candidates who receive the quota, or more, of first preference votes are elected immediately.

As a general rule, when a candidate is elected with a surplus of votes, that surplus is transferred before any exclusion is undertaken.

Transferring the surplus

Any surplus votes from elected candidates (votes in excess of the quota they need), are transferred to the candidates who were the second choice of voters on those ballot papers. Because it is not possible to determine which votes actually elected the candidate and which votes are surplus, all the elected candidate's ballot papers are transferred at a reduced rate.

Formula for calculating the transfer value

Surplus / Number of ballot papers held by candidate = Transfer value

Example of transferring the surplus

Candidate A gains 1 000 000 votes. If the required quota was 600 000 the surplus would be 400 000.

The transfer value for candidate A's votes would be:

400 000 / 1 000 000 = 0.4

Candidate A's ballot papers (1 000 000) are then re-examined in order to determine the number of votes for second choice candidates.

If candidate A's ballot papers gave 900 000 second preferences to candidate B, then candidate B would receive 360 000 votes (900 000 multiplied by the transfer value of 0.4). These votes would be added to the votes candidate B received in the first count.

If, on receipt of candidate A's surplus votes, candidate B has then reached the quota, they are elected. If candidate B has any surplus votes, a transfer value would be calculated and votes would be transferred in the same way.

As surplus votes are transferred, other candidates may be elected. However, if all surplus votes from elected candidates are transferred and there are still unfilled positions, further counting is undertaken as explained below.

Exclusion of unsuccessful candidates

Starting with the candidate who has the lowest number of votes, unelected candidates are excluded from the count. Their ballot papers are distributed to the remaining candidates based on preferences. If any of the remaining candidates obtain a quota through this process of distribution, they are elected. Their surplus (if any) is transferred before any other candidates are excluded. The above process continues until all Senate positions are filled.

Tied Candidates

If candidates are tied on the same vote their order is determined by count back. The most recent count where the candidates are on a different number of votes is used; the candidate with more votes is then ranked higher at the current count.

If there is no previous count where the candidates are on different votes (or this is the first count), the order is determined by the Australian Electoral Officer (AEO, or a delegated representative) by lot.

Exhausted votes

As a result of the Senate voting reforms to a partial preferential rather than fully preferential voting method, it is likely that there will be an increase in the number of exhausted votes. A vote is considered "exhausted" when there is no next available preference for any continuing candidate meaning that it must be set aside from the scrutiny at that point.

Elected without a quota

If, as a result of exhausted ballot papers, there is not enough votes in the count to fill remaining vacancies the legislation provides, as it did prior to the Senate voting reforms:

  • that if one Senate position remains to be filled, and two candidates remain, the candidate with the highest number of votes shall be elected irrespective of whether they have reached the quota; or
  • that if the number of continuing candidates is equal to the number of remaining vacancies, those candidates are elected.

Two tied candidates for the last vacancy

If there are only two remaining candidates with the same number of votes and one remaining vacancy, the candidate elected is determined by lot.

Senate declaration

Counting for the Senate takes longer than the House of Representatives because of the complex nature of the counting system used. It is some weeks before all Senators are declared elected.

The declaration of the poll for the Senate is made by the Australian Electoral Officer for that state or territory.