For those who don't know, Australia uses ranked-choice voting for both the lower house (House of Representatives) and upper house (Senate) elections.

I can't help but wonder the logistics of the vote counting process. If you think about it, the time spent on verifying whether the votes are valid is pretty significant already.

For example, in the lower house election, voters are required to rank all the candidates. This means that if there are 8 candidates, then they must mark every candidate from 1 - 8, otherwise the ballot will not be counted. But what if some voters deliberately mark the same number twice to mess up the process? Do election officials have to verify every ballot first before the counting process even begins?

Question: What is the step by step logistics of counting votes in Australian general elections?

  • 1
    Informally, as an Australian; if a vote is marred by a double number it's tossed aside. You do not have to fill out all the boxes, if you vote 1 for Party A and Party A doesn't win your vote goes to whoever Party A nominates. We usually know on election night who's one, as usually preferences don't matter a whole lot as most tend to vote 1 for Blue or Red with scattered votes for Green and other 3rd parties. The Final Vote is usually counted within a week or so.
    – Joshua
    Commented Dec 18, 2020 at 6:55
  • Additionally, you only get one vote card and its dropped in anonymously. You register and they give you your packet and all you do is fill the numbers. A formal recount a la the US election checking each signature on the card with an official record would not be possible as votes are not "signed" or similar. We trust that each slip of paper is legit. You need to bring ID and such to the polling place who verify it in person before you get your slip
    – Joshua
    Commented Dec 18, 2020 at 6:57
  • @Joshua: none of what you said in your second comment is true. No Australian jurisdiction currently requires photo ID (Queensland did for a while in state elections), ballots in the US are secret ballots just like in Australia, and Australian elections can be recounted.
    – ajd
    Commented Dec 18, 2020 at 15:29
  • As a QLD resident, I had to bring id because I lost the maroon letter thing that was sent out.
    – Joshua
    Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 3:00

1 Answer 1


The Australian Electoral Commission has some material about this on its website: https://aec.gov.au/Voting/counting/ The following is based on that and my personal experience.

Regarding what ballot papers do and don't count, the best reference is the Ballot Paper Formality Guidelines: https://www.aec.gov.au/Elections/candidates/files/ballot-paper-formality-guidelines.pdf

On election night, there is a hand count conducted on election night at each polling place.

For the House of Representatives: ballots are sorted by first preference - during this process, ballot papers which appear to be non-compliant with the rules are caught and sorted into a separate pile. Following the first preference count, a Two Candidate Preferred count is done - as the count is conducted on a polling place level rather than across the whole electorate, polling officials can't do a proper distribution of preferences at this point, so the Divisional Returning Officer selects the candidates they believe are most likely to be the final two candidates (generally, one Liberal/National and one Labor) and polling officials sort ballots according to which of the two candidates has the higher preference.

For the Senate: ballots are sorted by first preference - during this process, ballot papers which appear to be non-compliant with the rules are caught and sorted into a separate pile. The first preference results are counted, and that's it.

(When I say "ballot papers which appear to be non-compliant": the Formality Guidelines are complex, and sometimes a ballot paper could go either way depending on how you interpret the rules. In that case, you put it in the "informal" pile and let senior officials deal with it later.)

The polling place closes at 6pm and results will start flowing in from 7pm for small rural polling places all the way through to 9pm, 10pm, 11pm or potentially later for large urban polling places.

The election night count doesn't ultimately determine the result of the election - it's only used for media reporting. However, it's typically enough for media outlets to call the result of most races and the overall outcome of the entire election by about 9pm/10pm Sydney time.

After election night, ballots are moved to an AEC counting centre. This process also involves reconciling a lot of paperwork from the polling places to ensure that ballot papers haven't been lost and that everything matches up. Absentee and provisional votes also need to be transported to the home electorate and the envelopes verified against the electoral roll so officials can make a decision whether or not to allow them to be counted. For federal elections, the law allows up to 13 days after election day for postal votes to arrive.

House of Representatives ballots will then be counted by local electorate staff - this process is done by hand, in the presence of party scrutineers (poll watchers, in American terminology) who will check ballot papers to ensure they are being correctly counted and that incorrectly completed ballots are excluded. They have the right to challenge decisions to count or exclude a particular ballot, which is used frequently in close contests.

Once it becomes clear that a candidate has a lead wide enough that it is impossible for any other candidate to win, the Divisional Returning Officer will declare them elected. This means that they don't usually wait the full 13 days for postal votes to arrive before officially determining the candidate, but in a close contest they will need to wait for every last postal vote.

Senate ballot papers will be sent to the state's Central Senate Scrutiny facility, where they are scanned and counted electronically, with a system that flags ballot papers for human review if they don't look like they are completed correctly. (This is also done in the presence of scrutineers, but their job is much harder post-2016 now that scanning is used instead of manual data entry.)

The Senate count cannot be finalised until all votes have been scanned, so it typically takes several weeks to officially declare. The media can usually get a reasonable guess at what the party makeup of the Senate will look like based on the preliminary figures, but it's much less predictable than the House of Representatives.

  • 2
    Worth noting that such a similar process in impossible in jurisdictions like the U.S. that have long ballots with many different candidate races and ballot issues on them at the same time (my general election ballot this year in Denver, Colorado has 47).
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Dec 18, 2020 at 18:28
  • 2
    @ohwilleke indeed. In Australia, federal, state and local elections are held completely separately on different days, and the only offices up for election are lower/upper house of federal/state parliament (or local councillor and possibly mayor in local elections). Referendum questions do occasionally happen but they are rare. With so few offices, we use a separate ballot paper per office. The US on the other hand absolutely needs fully electronic vote tabulation if you're going to count anything in a reasonable amount of time.
    – ajd
    Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 4:09

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