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Although polling day is tomorrow, the counting several seats won’t be resolved for weeks. I thought I’d write up a response now to the inevitable whinging on twitter (and elsewhere) that will result.

TL;DR: Your convenient postal vote is inconvenient for, and imposes huge amounts of effort on, everybody else. Deal with it.

The long version is there’s a bunch of reasons for this, so let’s go through them one by one. Then I can rant for a bit.

It may take 13 days for the envelopes to get there.

Declaration votes have to be completed before polling day, but can be received in the home divisional office up to 13 days after polling day. See s228 (5A) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (CEA).

This means that votes may not be received for preliminary scrutiny for nearly two weeks, and this will be a particular issue in marginal seats.

This is a necessary clause in the CEA, it allows for postal delays, and also for absentee votes to be couriered to the home division. An absentee vote is a vote cast on polling day outside of the elector’s enrolled division. Whilst some polling places have ballot boxes for adjacent divisions, these mostly have to be cast as declaration votes[1], particularly interstate or overseas.

Preliminary Scrutiny? Say What?

This isn’t counting the vote.

This is deciding if the vote can be counted at all.

OK, so a declaration vote is an envelope containing the ballot papers with a declaration (hence the name) signed by the elector and a witness attached to the envelope.

The preliminary scrutiny is making the decision as to whether the envelope can be opened (and the ballot papers admitted to ballot boxes), or has to be left sealed.

What this means is that the AEC, in the presence of scrutineers representing candidates in that Division, must follow the procedures set out in Schedule 3. This means checking that the:

  • Declaration is signed by an authorised witness;
  • Declaration is signed by the elector;
  • Elector is a citizen (if provisionally enrolled);
  • Vote was recorded prior to the close of the poll;
  • Elector has only lodged one declaration vote;
  • Elector is enrolled;
  • Elector did not lodge an ordinary vote elsewhere; and
  • Other rules depending on the type of declaration vote that I’ve probably forgotten or missed because this is a complex piece of the CEA referencing multiple other sections.

This takes time.

This takes effort.

It also, as noted above, it has to be done in a place where scrutineers can check what’s going on and raise objections (which they do).

Assuming that the envelope passes the preliminary scrutiny, the envelope can be opened and the ballot papers transferred to a ballot box[2]. Which is when the normal counting procedures kick in. Which means that the procedures for ordinary votes – checking formality, counting preferences, etc, will be what happens next.

If the envelope doesn’t pass the preliminary scrutiny, there’s still more work to be done by the AEC – they have to bundle those envelopes, label why they failed, and box them for further inspection. Some of the envelopes may be re-examined later in close seats.

i.e. The preliminary scrutiny, already a fair chunk of work per declaration vote, may end up being done multiple times per envelope.

Note that the AEC has no choice in this. Even though I haven’t gone into a great deal of details, everything described here is basically prescribed in the CEA. This is what has to happen, and it takes time,

Further Scrutiny

This is where the votes actually get counted, preferences allocated, etc. It’s the same for declaration votes that made it out of the envelopes as it is for ordinary votes. In this context the key point is that the further scrutiny may not even start for some votes until 13 days after polling day.

On Scrutineers

I think it’s important to say that I don’t have any objections to the presence of scrutineers. To the contrary, I think scrutineers are a necessary part of protecting democracy. My only concern here is the level of effort involved[3] which is increased when people use postal votes when it’s convenient instead of when it’s necessary.


This is an election where more voters than ever before have completed postal votes[4]. This inevitably means that fewer votes can be counted on election night, and that the counts will take longer. This is especially true of marginal seats where the scrutineers will, of necessity, be out in force.

This is where I put my grumpy old man hat on[5]. Postal votes exist for a reason: to provide a means for voting for persons who cannot attend a polling place on polling day. They are there to extend the franchise to those can’t otherwise participate.

The sick, the disabled, those with religious objections[6], for silent electors whose safety would be compromised by voting in person, etc[7].

Being too bloody lazy to turn up isn’t one of those reasons. If that’s you this year, then next time grow up, show up, and get your vote counted on the night.

If you’re complaining after the election about how long a particular count is taking the AEC to complete: diddums. The AEC don’t make these rules, the parliament does. If you think it’s taking too long, make a submission to the next Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM). JSCEM run an enquiry into the conduct of each election, so take it up with them.

Until then: accept that the AEC have to follow the rules, that declaration votes take at least 20 times as much effort to count as ordinary votes, and that they may have to wait two weeks to even get the votes to count. They’re doing their best, be patient and stop whinging.

[1] There are also provisional votes for electors whose enrolment cannot be easily confirmed (the elector has a short period after polling day to provide evidence), and possibly pre-poll votes cast out of home division.

[2] It is possible for the ballot papers to be partially admitted if the elector isn’t enrolled in that division but is enrolled in the state/territory. In which case the Senate paper gets counted, but the House paper doesn’t.

[3] For both the scrutineers and the (by then) long suffering AEC staff.

[4] I don’t know that for certain, but it’s been the trend for decades. I can’t see an election with a longer postal voting period breaking the trend.

[5] As opposed to the top hat in my avatar. Because top hats are cool and who can be grumpy wearing a top hat.

[6] Elections are on the Sabbath, this is a known issue or some Orthodox Jews.

[7] There’s a list of reasons in the CEA.