Making sense of the polls

Making sense of the polls

How the Votes are Counted

At the 2010 election, 84% of votes were either ordinary or pre-poll votes cast within a voter’s electorate; these votes are counted on election night. The remaining votes are postal votes, pre-poll votes cast outside a voter’s electorate and absentee votes, which are cast on election day but outside a voter’s electorate. A few provisional votes are also added. It generally takes over two weeks for all votes to be counted, and the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has in the past not declared all seats until four weeks after election day. I will describe the count for both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

House of Representatives

Before the election, the AEC will select two candidates for each electorate, and a notional preference count will be conducted between these two candidates on election night. If the candidates selected by the AEC are wrong, a notional count may not be conducted until well after election night. In most seats, the AEC selects the two major party candidates for a notional count.

The notional preference count should not be confused with the official result. Once all votes for an electorate are in, the AEC will conduct a formal distribution of preferences. A candidate who has over 50% of the primary vote is declared elected immediately, but otherwise the process is to exclude candidates starting with the lowest vote getter, and distributing preferences progressively, until one candidate has over 50% of the vote. Almost always, it is clear from primary votes who the final two candidates will be, and in this case the notional preference count will be equivalent to the vote after distribution of preferences. However, there have been occasions where the third placed candidate on primary votes won the seat - Andrew Wilkie did this in 2010, when he benefited from Greens and then Liberal preferences to win Denison.

A final stage is to conduct a Coalition vs Labor count in electorates where one of the two major parties did not make the final two candidates. This step allows for the calculation of a national two party preferred result, and also allows preference flow data from the various minor parties and Independents to the major parties to be calculated. This preference flow data is used by pollsters to estimate national and state two party preferred votes.


In the Senate a voter has a choice of either numbering every square below the line, or of placing a “1” in his or her party’s box above the line. Given the numbers of candidates, it is not surprising that the vast majority of voters prefer the simpler above the line method. In 2010, 96% of Senate votes were above the line, and this percentage is likely to increase in 2013, given the “tablecloth” ballot papers and need for magnifying glasses.

There are six Senators elected in each state, and two in each territory. A quota for Senate election is the number of votes required to elect a Senator, and is 1/7 (14.3%) of the vote in each state, and 1/3 (33.3%) in the territories.

In general, it is clear just from primary votes which candidates have won five of the six Senators for states, and both territory Senators. It is the sixth position in each state that can be decided by preferences. A similar procedure is followed to the House here. The five Senators who are clearly elected on primary votes have their surplus votes transferred to the next candidates on their tickets. Then, starting with the lowest remaining vote-getter, candidates are eliminated and their preferences distributed, until one remaining candidate has more than 14.3% of the vote, and thus has a quota.

The above the line voting system means that preference deals can be very important. When voters put a “1” in their party’s box, they are consenting to having their preferences distributed via their party’s group voting ticket. This ticket voting system has led to parties with very low support getting candidates elected; the DLP’s John Madigan was elected in Victoria in 2010 with only 2.3% of the vote. Another issue with ticket voting is that parties’ tickets are negotiated in backroom deals, and a voter can end up voting for someone they would ideologically oppose.

I strongly believe that this ticket voting system needs to be reformed. One idea is to require that a party receive at least 4% of the vote to be eligible for election - this is the amount required to retain a deposit. Another idea used now in NSW is to allow voters to choose how to allocate their preferences above the line by numbering squares above the line “1”, “2”, etc.