Australia Federal Election 2016: What Happens Next?

The short answer is “counting continues”. The long answer is that “counting continues, and it’s a much more complicated process than you might think”. But before I go into how votes are counted, it’s worth taking a look at how they’re cast, because understanding that is important to understanding why counting takes as long as it does.

Starting at the Start:
Voting actually commences before polling day, in several different ways.

There are pre-polling centres across Australia (and the world, but I’ll come back to them) where you can vote ahead of time for whatever reason (say, if you have to work on polling day). Many, but not all, of these are also polling booths on election day. In the cases of those that are also polling day booths, these pre-poll votes will have begun being counted by now, after the polling day votes are counted on election night. In the cases of those which are not, these votes will have been sent to the divisional office to await counting.

There are also mobile pre-polling booths, which primarily exist to serve people in hospital who cannot physically attend a polling booth otherwise. These booths operate throughout the pre-polling period and also on polling day, finally reporting back to their respective divisional offices. (If you look at the results for nearly any division across the country right now (that is, on this Sunday after election day), you’ll see that the majority of votes from these mobile booths have not yet been counted.

There are postal votes, for people who can’t get to a polling booth. These are individually addressed: for each division, postal votes go back to the divisional office for their division. Postal votes are allowed two full weeks – up until the second Friday following polling day – to arrive at their divisional office.

Finally, there are international votes, which are chiefly held at Australian embassies and consulates across the world. Most of these operate pre-polling and polling day services. These votes will be sent back to Australia, and then separated out to their respective divisional offices.

The Big Day
Polling day is when the majority of the country votes and eats sausages (or the local and/or dietary equivalent). According to surveys, it’s also when the majority of voters decide who to vote for, which implies that the gut rather than the mind drives a lot of our electoral results. After the business of voting finishes – it runs from 8AM to 6PM in most locations (and if you go too early in some of them, you’ll be there before the sausages are ready) – the business of counting the votes begins.

Spare a thought for the poor bastards doing the counting on election day, because they are the unsung heroes of this story. The AEC hasn’t updated its staffing practices in a long time – and unfortunately, what we have doesn’t scale well. FT employees on election day start at 7am, and work until they’re allowed to go. They do get some breaks, but they’re not allowed to leave the premises during their entire shift. (They also get paid a fixed amount, irrespective of how many hours they work – this year’s crew got ripped off there.) It’s a pretty shit job, no matter how many sausages you eat.

On election night, the only votes counted are those cast at the physical polling booths on that day for the division the booth is in. (Some few polling booths serve more than one division – counting is particularly slow at those booths, because the staff have to split up and each of them works on only one division’s votes). Very few divisional offices are also polling booths (they mostly lack the space for it), so votes that are sitting at the divisional office do not get counted on election night. This year, with a very high pre-poll vote, that means there’s a good chunk of votes still to be counted – 25-30% in most divisions – so this election is still, potentially, anyone’s game.

Also, on election night, Senate votes are barely looked at. This year, we have a count only of first preferences of above the line polling day votes only counted on election night. I’ll come back to this.

They don’t work the Sunday, never have. No idea why not.

You Keep Talking About Divisional Offices
I do, and it’s because they’re very important.

Divisional offices are where all votes are centralised for counting. So not a lot of counting gets done on Monday, because the Monday is largely taken up by logistics. Monday is when all the polling booths return their votes to the divisional offices, and they each need to be checked to make sure that the numbers match. (A counting of ballots, rather than votes, if you follow me.) From these, the absentee votes (votes cast in one division that belong to another division) have to be separated out, and sent on to where they should be. In most divisions, this means nearby and intra-state votes get sent directly to their divisional offices, while votes for divisions in other states are bundled separately, but sent to their respective state head office to be dispatched to their divisions (which usually means an extra day for the travel and sorting).

From Tuesday onward (sometimes late Monday for the smaller urban electorates), divisions start receiving their own absentee votes, which must also be checked off and then added to the counts.

Throughout this period, postal votes will continue to filter in – the AEC allows until the second Friday following the election for all of them to arrive – they are also each checked off and added to the count.

International votes, like other absentee votes, go to state head offices first, then out to divisional offices. They usually take longer to arrive due to the vagaries of travel times and international freight schedules – some of them will take more than a week to arrive, and the AEC cannot declare a count completed (which is different from declaring a result) until they are all counted.

Plus, all of this is complicated by human error – which is less about votes miscounted than mislaid. It’s not uncommon for a division to receive votes intended to go to another division with a similar name, and these need to be redirected to their correct location.

What About the Senate?
The Senate votes take much longer to count than the lower house votes, for a number of very good reasons:

  1. Before you can even begin counting Senate votes, you need to separate the above and below the line votes, because these two groups are counted apart from each other (and totalled at the end of each count). Currently, all Senate votes go into the same ballot box on polling day – the AEC could save quite a bit of time and money just by putting them in separate boxes.
  2. There are a lot more candidates. Even the simpler above the line vote usually has twice as many candidates as a lower house vote, and below the line there can be more than a hundred candidates.
  3. More candidates mean more eliminations, and thus, more rounds of counting. A lower house seat might have a dozen candidates – at most, it gets counted 11 times. A Senate vote, with over a hundred candidates, is likely to get counted more than twice that.

And because the Senate does not determine who forms the government in our system, it is also generally given a lower priority in counting than the lower house. Each day at each divisional office, there will be at least one count for each house, but the lower house will inevitably be counted before the Senate – although towards the end of the count, the pace picks up, and the Senate votes will be counted multiple times each day as candidates are eliminated.

But Wait, There’s More!
And all of this does not take into consideration the possibility of recounts, which are certainly going to be demanded by a variety of parties in some of the seats with narrow margins (Batman and Cowan, for example, are both very likely to go to recounts based on what we’ve seen so far in the count). There is no set number at which the AEC must have a recount, but generally any result with a margin under a hundred is going to be recounted.

And then, of course, there’s still the possibility – at this point, the likelihood – of a hung parliament when all the counting’s completed in any case. In which case it will be up to the crossbenchers – projected to be at least six of them right now, with possibly more to come – to decide who they want to back. If anyone.

Which means we might go back to the polls yet again, and who knows how that will come out. Probably an even closer result.

Oh, and after all this, the joint sitting of both houses that’s required to try to pass the bills that served as the trigger for the double dissolution in the first place will still need to be held, and will quite likely result in those bills being defeated anyway, because on current numbers, there’s no way that the LNC – even if it wins the election – has the combined numbers in both houses to get it through.