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We're in the middle of a Federal election here in Australia, and many of us have been following the ABC news reports enthusiastically.

This has me wondering, why is it that we must turn to the ABC directly for summary statistics? Why can't the electoral commission publish raw data directly to be analyzed by any third parties?

If it is reasonable to do so, do you know of any countries which make this data available?

EDIT: I understand that for many elections this is the case, but for ranked-choice voting this data is typically abstracted in a way that cannot be transformed into its original state. Here is an archive of some NSW elections which contain what I'm looking for, however this is not available by default. Here is a preview of one of these files:

$ head Data_NA_Albury.txt_ballots.txt
0, 1, 2, 3, 4
LAB,CDP,NLT,LIB,GRN
-+-+-+-+-
() : 22
(0) : 7060
(0,1) : 31
(0,1,2) : 13
(0,1,2,3) : 5
(0,1,2,3,4) : 362
(0,1,2,4) : 2

These are exact tallies for each preferential ballot. For example, if I voted in this election with preference (1:LAB, 2:CDP, 3:NLT, 4:LIB, 5:GRN), then I would have contributed 1 vote toward the total of 362.

In the case of ranked-choice elections, I haven't seen this data anywhere else. I wonder why it is not published officially?

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    Every (non-autocratic) country I know publishes exact vote counts for every election, often broken down into very small units. What other information are you looking for? May 21 at 15:20
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    This page for example gives the exact results for the Banks constituency in New South Wales. This page gives the exact results for the Allawah polling station in that constituency. May 21 at 15:23
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    The pages I linked to are exact vote counts, by polling station. Not "summaries". What additional information are you looking for? (I'm not going to download a file linked to by a complete stranger). The data from the pages is also available for download May 21 at 15:29
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    Might not be relevant in this case, but I've heard concerns that this level of detail could result in the secrecy of the ballot box being broken. EG I say "I want you to vote for LIB ahead of LAB, and to prove you did so, I want you to vote for the other parties in some specified (and odd) order. Since the number of votes is low and the number of variations is high, you can easily check if someone did vote that way. This allows for vote selling etc.
    – James K
    May 21 at 20:28
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2 Answers 2

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I am not from Australia, nor have I ever taken part in a ranked vote election, but I have some experience with counting votes in my home town (Berlin, Germany). After an admittedly short look at the Commonwealth Electoral Act, I can find the following: The numbers you are searching are published only after the formal return of the writ, as stated in section 283A:

Within 7 days after the return of the writ for a Senate election for a State or Territory, the Australian Electoral Officer for the State or Territory must publish on the Electoral Commission’s website:
(a) the following identifying information for each formal ballot paper cast in the election:
(i) the Division;
(ii) the vote collection point;
(iii) the batch number and ballot paper number within the batch;
(iv) the full set of marked preferences; and
(b) the distribution of preferences received by each candidate for the State or Territory after each count under section 273 in the election.

(I hope I got this right for different bodies being elected. The act jumps from one election to the other in a manner that makes it difficult to understand which rule applies to all elections, and which only to the House of Representatives or to the Senate, or to state or Commonwealth elections.)

Before that time, geting the results takes the priority. And to find out which candiate has been elected, the full set of preferences on each ballot is an information that is not needed. There are several hundreds of combinations that are possible in ranking votes on a ballot, and to list them all would be a serious burden on the returning officer and the people who do the work of counting. Not to slow them down is given the higher priority.

The Commonwealth Electoral Act, like any other electoral legislation I have ever studied, describes elections in terms of a rigorous process: Every action a person involved takes is described in the order they are taken. For example, section 273 describes how votes for the Senate are to be counted, step by step. The first thing you notice is that at the level of polling stations and divisions, only the first prefered vote is counted, and then the ballots are sealed (subsections 2 and 3). This process excludes local and divisional officers to ever register second or later preferences. Only an Australian Electoral Officer, as described in 273(7), may ascertain more data, and then again only as needed:

Where, for the purposes of the succeeding provisions of this section:
(a) the number of ballot papers or votes in any category is required to be ascertained;
(b) a quota, a transfer value or the order of standing of continuing candidates in a poll is required to be determined; or
(c) a candidate is required to be identified;
the Australian Electoral Officer for the State shall ascertain the number, determine the quota, transfer value or order, or identify the candidate, as the case may be.

The following subsections then describe the steps to be taken in detail. But note that is not the duty of the Returning Officer to ascertain anything beyond the necessary steps at this time. For example, if one candidate has the majority of the vote already after counting the first preference, there is no need to count second preferences, and so it will not be done at this point.

Section 273A states the priorities clearly. While giving to scrutineers the right of access to any counting records (subsection 6) and to ask the officers for any ballot for inspection (subsection 6AA), the returning officer may refuse (subsection 6AB):

(a) the officer must grant the request unless, in the opinion of the Australian Electoral Officer, granting the request would:
(i) unreasonably delay the scrutiny; and
(ii) put at risk the writ for the election being returned before the start of the term of service of the successful candidates;
(b) ...

The purpose of an election is to get a body of legislators that can act in the faith that they have been elected in a fair process and in a time interval that makes sure the election represents the current opinion of the public.

Only after the election is complete, the ballot papers may be looked at in detail.

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    Thank you for the detailed answer! I must admit it had never occurred to me that such data is logistically difficult to obtain, and often not necessary (when a party obtains a majority quickly). Interesting though that the first excerpt (a.iv) suggests that this exact data should be available somewhere on the AEC website. However, I can't seem to find it. I know for a fact that Scrutineers have access to this data somehow, whether it be physical access to the ballots or otherwise. So why not publish it, and effectively let all members of the public be scrutineers? May 22 at 2:25
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    Again, if you look at the details, what scrutineers have access to is the data the returning officer has at the time of asking. Section 273A (5) talks of "a record of the preferences...whose details have been stored in the computer". Have been, not will be at a later time.
    – ccprog
    May 22 at 2:34
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It appears what you are looking for is a full distribution of preferences, something like this example from a previous election. This will not be available until some time after the election for the following reasons:

  1. The election night count does not consider count all the preferences - only the first preferences and the two-candidate preferred (i.e. highest ranking among the two candidates estimated to most likely win).
  2. The election night count is conducted at each polling place, and so the counts at other polling places in the same electorates may not be known.
  3. Not all the votes have been received to enable the full count - remember postal votes can be received up to 13 days after the election.

The full count will occur in the week after the election, where all the ballot papers are collated into a central location and recounted.

The raw results used by the television networks come from the AEC media feed, which is updated every 90 seconds during election night. Presumably you will need to apply to the AEC to get access.

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