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Explainer: the WA Senate re-election

Leaders of both major parties are campaigning in Western Australia this week as the state heads back to the polls to elect six senators. AAP/Richard Wainwright

Western Australians will head back to the polls to elect six members of the Senate this Saturday. But what are the issues that caused the original result to be declared void? And what are some of the more important technical aspects of Saturday’s poll?

Why is WA voting again this Saturday?

The votes for the Western Australian Senate election were counted twice after the federal election of September 7 last year. A recount was ordered due to the closeness of the original result. During this process the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) lost 1,70 ballot papers, causing the Court of Disputed Returns to declare the result void and order a fresh election.

Mick Keelty, a former commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, conducted an inquiry into the missing votes. Keelty’s report noted the logistical difficulties faced by the AEC in conducting an election. These were exacerbated by Kevin Rudd’s decision to change the 2013 election date set earlier in the year by Julia Gillard.

While not finding any evidence of corruption or malicious intent, Keelty’s report concluded that it was impossible to determine exactly how the ballots had gone missing. The AEC has accepted all recommendations from the report.

The AEC has also acknowledged that this incident damaged its reputation, which led to electoral commissioner Ed Killesteyn’s resignation in February. Peter Kramer, the Australian electoral officer for Western Australia, also resigned.

While the University of Western Australia’s Senate election survey is yet to close, preliminary results show the WA electorate recognises the challenges the AEC faces. About 90% of respondents have indicated “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of faith in the organisation.

Logistics and statistics

Nearly 7000 temporary staff employed by the AEC will be working on Saturday. The AEC has estimated the cost of the election at A$20 million. Voting is compulsory for the 1,480,303 Western Australians on the federal electoral roll.

For those who have not already voted by postal vote or at an early voting location, over 700 polling places will be open on election day. For Western Australians who find themselves interstate, polling places are in operation in the CBDs of all state and territory capital cities. The fine for not voting without a valid reason is $20.

This election should be considered a fresh election for two reasons. First, the parties and candidates running are not exactly the same as in the September election. The 2014 ballot paper has 15 extra candidates.

Secondly, the make-up of the electorate has changed. An additional 28,031 voters are now enrolled. This represents a 1.9% increase since the September poll and includes those who have turned 18 or become Australian citizens since the election.

The roll has also changed to reflect voters arriving from or departing to interstate and overseas, together with the AEC’s routine processes to remove from the rolls deceased voters and those who change address without updating their enrolment details.

Methods of voting

Senators are elected according to the Single Transferable Vote method of proportional representation. This involves a complex process by which candidates are progressively elected or excluded from the count and their preferences distributed to other candidates. At a normal half-Senate election for six senators, the quota for election is effectively one-seventh of all formal votes cast.

Voters have two options in marking their ballot papers:

  1. Above the line, where a single vote is cast for a list of candidates who wish to be grouped on the ballot paper. Usually this applies to the candidates of a particular party, but the option is available to unendorsed independents and coalitions wishing to appear as a joint ticket.

  2. Below the line, where all 77 boxes must be numbered in order of preference.

If a voter chooses the above-the-line option, their preferences are distributed in the order set out by the relevant group voting tickets (GVT). Votes are thus transferred in whole where candidates in the group are excluded, or in part where a candidate is elected. In the latter case, surplus votes over and above a quota are transferred to candidates further down the ticket.

Booklets setting out the order of preferences in each GVT are available at every polling place on election day. You can also check the GVTs here.

When will results be announced?

Counting of first-preference votes will begin when the polls close at 6pm on Saturday. This includes ordinary votes lodged at pre-polling centres. The votes are then rechecked over the following days at AEC divisional offices.

Thirteen days are allowed for declaration votes (postal votes and votes cast outside the division) to reach the relevant divisional office. Counting of declaration votes will begin on April 22 after the Easter break. As of April 1, 127,630 postal vote applications had been lodged and 66,330 pre-poll votes had been cast. These numbers will continue to rise before Saturday.

If everything goes according to plan, Western Australia’s six newly elected senators will join their interstate counterparts who were elected last September, as well as the other half of the Senate that did not face election, for the first Senate sitting after July 1.

From that point, the memory of this extraordinary Western Australian half-Senate election will slowly fade and become but a footnote in the long history of Australian politics.

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