Politics: Scrutineering, or why I love our electoral system

Here’s the thing about scrutineering. It isn’t just about protecting your party’s votes or recording where the preference flows are going (though this is, of course, what you are appointed to do). It’s also about both observing and protecting the process of counting votes, and, particularly in an election where the results look like being quite depressing, I find it rather comforting to have watched the process and to know that yes, those really are the votes that were cast. For those who care, here’s what happens after they shut the doors at your polling place.

At six o’clock, the electoral officer declares the polling booth closed, and closes the doors. Scrutineers need to be inside at this point, or they are out of luck – and the voter who turned up at our booth at ten past six and asked to vote, because she claimed she had tried to vote before six at another booth but had been turned away, was politely refused and directed to a polling official.

The electoral officer then checks the seals on the boxes against the numbers on her booth kit, to make sure nobody had switched the boxes (I can’t imagine how anyone would be able to do this, especially in such a quiet booth, but they still check), and invites the scrutineers to check this too. Then she cut the seal and opens the boxes so that the counting can begin. The lower house box is counted first, but one or two people are usually set to emptying the upper house box and unfolding the ballot papers at this stage, because there are plenty of free spirits who put their lower house ballots into the wrong box, and it’s very important that the numbers add up.

While the sorting is going on, the electoral officer checks the number of ballots issued to the booth against the number left in the booth kit, and then checks this against the number of people who have voted at the booth, to make sure the numbers match. This number is written down, and has to match the total number of formal and informal votes at the end of the night. In one election I observed, they came up short, and had to recount everything twice and then go through the rubbish bins outside; they aren’t supposed to go through the bins any more, for OH&S reasons, though the electoral officer last night told me that in desperation she would probably do so.

Votes are sorted into piles by party, with the scrutineers watching. We check that the votes are going into the right pile (sometimes a counter will lose track of which pile is which part way through), that any votes which are dubious are challenged and that any votes that we feel are clear and the counter feels are dubious are brought to the attention of the electoral officer. We only had four names on our ticket yesterday, so we had fewer dodgy ballot forms than usual.

To be valid, a ballot has to clearly indicate the order of preferences. This means you can use Arabic or Roman numerals or even written numbers, but they have to start at one and be consecutive, and you must number at least to the second-last preference (if you have numbered 1-3 and left the other blank, it is assumed to be a 4). You can also write interesting remarks on your ballot form, or draw educational pictures. This doesn’t render your vote invalid, provided the numbers are clear and legible (though if you are being particularly educational, you may wish to make sure your handwriting is good enough that it doesn’t give any pissed-off counter a good excuse to claim that your intention is unclear).

Invalid votes are votes without enough numbers, or with two of one number, or with a cross or a tick or nothing at all. Dubious votes might be votes where the polling officer forgot to initial your vote in the top corner when issuing it (these votes are held aside, and get counted once the numbers have been checked and shown to match – to prevent anyone getting an extra vote), or they might be votes where you changed your mind often enough that there is argument about what your numbers are, or where you put a cross in a box, realised and then numbered everything, and there is room for dispute about your intention (this is where your helpful scrutineer defends your vote, and your less helpful oppositional scrutineer claims that the cross was actually crossing the number 1 out and the vote is invalid). Dubious votes might also be votes were several ballot papers were folded together as though they were all submitted by one person – we had a few of these last night and they were held aside until everything had been counted, so that the Electoral Officer could make sure the numbers added up and that, again, nobody had been voting twice.

In the upper house, there is even more scope for invalid votes, because people tend to get confused about votes above and below the line and sometimes vote in both places (in which case anything below the line outweighs anything that happens above the line). Generally, though, the electoral officials want votes to be formal rather than informal – or example if you’ve numbered all the boxes above the line, your vote will probably still be counted, they’ll just ignore all the numbers above the line that weren’t the number ‘1’, and treat it as a straight above the line vote. They’ve also made it easier to vote below the line, because now you only have to number your first five preferences (as there are five upper house seats per region). I actually think this is a bad idea, because it means that your vote can ‘expire’ if your first few preferences don’t get a seat – there is no second preference to count at that point (especially as most people who choose this option preference five candidates from a single party and then stop). A better notion might be to allow people to number the boxes consecutively above the line (which a fair few people do anyway).

All votes that are in the informal pile or that are disputed are then checked by the Electoral Officer, who makes a decision for that booth.

Once votes are sorted, they are counted. This is another chance for scrutineers to check for dodgy votes, of course. Generally, votes are counted into bundles of fifty by one person, and then recounted by a second person. And if Catherine the Annoying Scrutineer thinks that you’ve both miscounted, then they get counted again by the Electoral Officer (Catherine the Annoying Scrutineer happened to be right, however). The final numbers are checked against the number of votes for the booth, to ensure that they match.

After this, the two-party preferred vote is counted. The Electoral College sends each booth a note saying which two parties are expected to have the largest number of votes in that electorate, and preferences for the other parties are distributed between these two parties. In my booth last night, and in fact last election, too, the two-party preferred was Labor / Liberal, even though the booth itself recorded more Green votes than Labor votes. Each booth records both the raw numbers and the two party preferred count, and if it turns out that an unexpected party is in the top two, the two-party preferred will need to be re-counted later.

Then they get onto the Senate votes, which are first divided into Above and Below the line, and then distributed between the parties. The numbers are tallied, but they don’t go any further at the individual booth, because the calculations for the Senate are complicated and require all the votes from the entire district.

And, just in case this doesn’t sound like enough scrutiny, all the formal and informal votes are then boxed up and sent somewhere more central to be counted and checked *again* along with all the votes from that electorate. This process also has scrutineers hovering. And if an electorate or an election is really close, odds are everything will get counted and scrutinised yet again. I’ve never been involved in this later part of the count, because it usually occurs during the week when I have to work, and I don’t consider myself a good enough scrutineer for a really major booth. Which is a pity, because I think it would be really interesting.

So, the long and the short of it (the long of it, in this case) is that your vote is looked at and counted by at least four and very possibly more supposedly-impartial AEC employees, as well as numerous entirely-partial scrutineers from as many political parties as are able to field them. While mistakes are inevitable, mistakes that make it all the way through to the final figures are highly unlikely – they have to get past far too many pairs of eyes, all with different agendas, and the odds of nobody noticing something wrong are lower the more marginal your electorate is.

Not only does your vote count, it really is counted, and by real human beings who are paying very close attention.

(but you may want to lay off the educational diagrams and insightful political commentary on your ballot paper)

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