The last decade has seen a dramatic surge in pre-poll voting at both state and federal elections. At the 2007 Federal election, just 8.3% of votes were cast as pre-polls. Twelve years later that figure had quadrupled to 32.3%.
In 2007 80.0% of votes were ordinary polling day votes, in 2019 just 54.5%. Without the efforts of a horde of additional staff brought in to count pre-polls late into the evening, few recent elections would have produced a clear winner on election night.
The growth of pre-poll voting has altered the flow of results on election night. By 9pm most polling places have reported their results, but count completion for some of the country’s largest pre-poll centres can take several hours longer. It was pre-poll votes as much as the closeness of result that pushed coverage of the last two Federal elections into the early hours of Sunday morning.
This has led to calls for pre-poll counting to commence before 6pm on election day, something that is currently illegal. The call has come from several electoral authorities, including the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). It has also been suggested by some state political parties.
Is this a good idea? In my view the answer is unambiguously yes, as long as the results of pre-poll vote counts remain secret until after the close of polling at 6pm.
Ordinary versus Declaration Votes
To understand what has happened with pre-poll votes in the last decade, it is important to understand there are two types of votes cast at elections.
An ordinary vote is one where a voter has their name marked off the electoral roll, they are handed a lower house and in most cases an upper house ballot paper, and after completion, ballot papers are placed in the appropriate ballot box. Ordinary votes are available for counting on election night.
A declaration vote is any vote where a voter’s name is not crossed off the electoral roll and ballot papers are placed in a sealed ‘declaration’ envelope. The envelope has the voter’s name, address and signature on the outside. Declaration votes are dealt with in the week after election day.
Postal votes, absent votes, silent votes, provisional votes and some pre-polls are all types of declaration votes. The details of declaration envelopes must be checked against the electoral roll before envelopes are opened and votes admitted to the count. Postal votes have extra scrutiny applied with the envelope also checked against the postal vote application.
Dealing with and counting declaration votes is slow and much more expensive per vote than dealing with ordinary votes. It is why, as pre-poll voting started to become more popular, that Electoral Commissions asked for laws to be changed to allow pre-polls to be dealt with as ordinary votes. Which led to a further rise in pre-poll voting as Electoral Commissions no longer had cost and delay reasons to discourage pre-poll voting.
When Pre-Poll Votes became Ordinary Votes
Until the 2010 federal election, pre-poll votes were a form of in-person postal vote. Voters were required to tick one of the allowable category boxes on the declaration envelope to verify their eligibility to pre-poll.
After a rise in pre-poll voting at the 2007 election, the AEC recommend to parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) that pre-poll declarations in future be made orally. In addition, all within-district pre-poll voters would have their name marked off the roll and their vote placed in a ballot box and dealt with as an ordinary vote. Outside-district pre-poll voters still needed to place their ballot papers in a declaration envelope.
The proposal was accepted and implemented for the 2010 Federal election. All states have since followed the federal lead.
Victoria has taken the change further by allowing outside-district pre-poll votes to be taken as ordinary votes. But removing the within-without pre-poll distinction produced pre-poll ballot boxes that could contain votes from multiple districts. This made it very difficult for the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) to reconcile and count pre-poll votes on election night.
At the 2018 Victorian election, the VEC made two changes to procedures. First, a greater attempt was made to steer within-district pre-poll voters towards a designated ballot box. The second was to allow pre-poll ballot boxes to be opened from 4pm on election day to allow votes to be sorted by district. After 6pm, within-district ballot papers could be counted. Some party scrutineers tried to sample count the ballot papers while being sorted, but with only mixed results.
The NSW Labor Party has picked up on the Victorian experience and suggested pre-poll counting be allowed from 4pm. However, as NSW only allows within-district pre-polls to be ordinary votes, sorting would not required. Counting could begin at 4pm.
Now the AEC is suggesting the pre-poll counting be allowed before 6pm on election day. In its submission to the JSCEM inquiry into the conduct of the 2019 Federal election, the AEC notes that –
“There are options for improvement for pre-poll vote counts. One possible option may be to enable votes cast prior to election day to be counted on election day prior to 6pm, which would allow the AEC to provide more comprehensive and earlier indications of election-night results following the close of polls. This process would be open to scrutineer, with appropriate arrangements made to ensure secrecy of votes counted prior to 6pm. A potential model is the method used in New Zealand elections.” (AEC 2019 submission to JSCEM, p25)
Why the AEC is recommending this is clear when you look at the explosion in pre-poll voting and the counting difficulties it has created.
The growth of Pre-Poll Voting at Federal elections 1993-2019
Table 1 (below) shows the percentage of votes cast by vote category at Federal elections since 1993. Pre-poll ordinary votes, allowed since 2010, are separately identified as a sub-total of the Total Pre-Poll column.
Table 1 – Percentage of Total Vote by Vote Category – Federal Elections 1993-2019
Notes/Source: Calculated based on votes cast at Senate elections. Votes do not add to 100% due to the small number of provisional votes. Calculations by author based on AEC JSCEM Submissions and AEC published election results.
Between 2007 and 2019, the proportion of votes cast as ordinary votes in polling places declined from 80.0% to 54.5%. In the same period, the percentage of votes cast as within-district pre-poll ordinary votes surged from 7.5% to 28.2%.
Without the counting of pre-poll ordinary votes, the chance of having a clear result on election night would be greatly diminished. The data in Table 2 expresses ordinary votes available for counting as a percentage of total enrolment. This figure is effectively the election night turnout figure. The election turnout figure is not reached until all categories of declaration votes have been counted.
Table 2 – Ordinary Votes as a Percentage of Enrolment on Election Night – 1993-2019
|Election||Polling Place Ordinary||Polling Place + Pre-poll Ordinary|
Notes/Source: Calculations based on votes cast at Senate elections. Votes do not add to 100% due to the small number of provisional votes. Calculations by author based on AEC JSCEM Submissions and AEC published election results.
Based on polling day ordinary votes, election night turnout was above 75% from 1993 to 2007, but has declined rapidly with the increase of pre-poll voting. Polling place ordinary votes represented only 50.4% of enrolment at the 2019 election. Election night turnout has remained above 75% since 2010 only because pre-poll votes can now be counted on election night. As pre-poll numbers increased, the AEC moved to only count House pre-poll ballot papers, Senate ballots left until the following week.
Pre-poll voting centres became so large in 2019 that the AEC warned it would struggle to complete counting on election night. The AEC did manage to report all pre-poll counts, but that has not been the case recently for less well resourced state Electoral Commissions.
At the 2019 NSW election, not all pre-poll centres finished counting on election night. At the 2018 Victorian election, the reporting of pre-poll counts, and selected postal counts, continued until 2am on the Sunday morning.
The data in Table 3 (below) illustrates the problem. At the 2019 Federal election, there was only one polling place in the country that recorded and counted more than 4,000 ordinary votes. There were 370 pre-poll centres that had to count more than 4,000 votes, 149 more than 10,000, and ten needed to count more than 20,000 votes.
Table 3 – Number of Votes to be Counted at Pre-Poll Centres and Polling Places – 2019 Federal Election
|Votes to be Counted||Number of
|20,000 or more||10||..|
|15,000 or more||49||..|
|10,000 or more||149||..|
|5,000 or more||323||..|
|4,000 or more||370||1|
Source: Calculations by author based AEC election data files. Some pre-poll centres used to take votes for more than one division may have taken more votes. Calculations based on House votes. Note that totals in each line are cumulative, so there were 49 pre-poll centres with more than 15,000 votes, which is 39 between 15,000 and 20,000 plus another 10 with more than 20,000.
Polling places are staffed based on how many votes will be taken and need to be counted on election night. AEC research suggests polling places should take only around 2,000 votes for efficient operation..
Counting pre-polls requires hiring additional staff just to count votes. And with pre-poll ballot boxes transported to the Returning Officer on Friday evening, pre-poll counting involves dealing with multiple pre-polls at the counting centre. Counting 20,000 ballot papers is not just a matter of scaling up a 4,000 vote count. Large counts require more ballot boxes to be reconciled, and more experienced supervision to avoid the process getting lost in a blizzard of forms and ballot papers.
With pre-poll counting only starting at 6pm on election night, staff are working well into the night to finish the counts. Two solutions have been put forward. One is to cut the number of pre-poll votes by limiting its availablity. The second is to allow the Electoral Commission to start counting votes under secure conditions before the close of polls at 6pm on election day, avoiding the late night wait for results.
Should We Cut Back on Pre-Poll Voting?
Most Federal election campaigns run for five weeks, the minimum allowed under current electoral law. The three key dates delineating the campaign are the close of rolls at the end of week one, close of nominations at the end of week two, and polling day three weeks later. Longer campaigns and public holidays can vary the election timetable.
The AEC can accept postal vote applications once the election date is known, but postal vote packs can’t be dispatched until after the close of nominations. Nor can Pre-poll voting begin until after the close of nominations. So current law allows a minimum three week period for pre-poll and postal voting.
The growth of pre-poll voting has vexed candidates and parties as they struggle to staff pre-poll centres with people to hand out how-to-votes. It has also tested campaign strategies, the traditional crescendo of advertising and announcements at the end of the campaign being re-structured into a drip-feed of announcements.
Several parties have suggested that pre-poll voting be cut to two weeks, easing the load on campaign volunteers. But pre-poll voting numbers at the 2019 election suggest this may not impact on the number of pre-polls cast.
In the three weeks of pre-polling in 2019, 13.9% of votes were taken in week 1 of pre-poll voting, and 32.2% in week 2. The final week of the election saw 53.9% of all pre-polls cast, with 14.9% on the last Friday, more than were taken in the entire first week. The chart below plots the total pre-poll votes taken each day from 29 April to 17 May. There was no pre-poll voting on Saturday 4 May, Sunday 5 May or Sunday 12 May.
There are two problems with a shorter pre-poll period. Surveys have shown that any voter who uses pre-poll voting is more likely to use it again at the next election. Some of the reasons cited by voters are it is more convenient than on polling day, and they are less likely to be confronted by party workers. If the pre-poll period is shortened, or the number of centres reduced, will the same number of voters trying to use a constricted pre-poll service simply create queues and delays?
A second problem, and one that concerns me, is that parties will use the lack of pre-polling in the week after the close of nominations to flood the electorate with postal vote applications, driving up the rate of postal voting. Parties trawl for postal vote with their own return address, the returned applications passed to the AEC, the party then sending how-to-vote material to the applicant in the hope of influencing their postal vote.
Postal voting is the least secure voting channel, and the party return address can delay the sending out of postal vote packs. Postal votes are slow and expensive to process and count. Some states try to count available returned postal votes on election night, but the envelopes have to be pre-processed before polling day.
It will be a poor trade-off if cutting back secure and efficient pre-poll voting creates a rise in less secure and more expensive postal voting which at the moment the AEC does not count on election night.
Overseas Experience with Early Counting
New Zealand counts Advance votes (as pre-poll votes are called) in secure lock down from 9am on election day. After the close of polling at 7pm, totals begin to be entered into the Electoral Commission’s computer system. Around 50% of all votes are expected to be cast as pre-polls at the 2020 election later this year.
The nature of election day across the Tasman makes counting on election day possible. In New Zealand, it is illegal for campaign signage to be on display anywhere in the country on polling day. It is illegal to campaign for votes, say how you voted, or engage in any campaign related activity outside a polling place. That leaves plenty of party workers available to scrutineer the Advance vote count on election day.
With active campaigning allowed outside polling places in Australia, will parties and candidates have enough volunteers to send along to a pre-poll vote secure count? Electoral staff don’t always like scrutineers, but they are an important part of the transparency of our electoral system. Officials count the votes in the presence of candidate representatives who are free to question and challenge ballot papers and totals.
Canada will, on approval by the Electoral Commissioner, allow the counting of Advance votes to begin an hour before the close of polls. This is a provision brought in to deal with the recent surge in Advance voting. The count must be done under lock down with no results released until after the close of polls.
The United Kingdom has no provision for in-person pre-poll voting, but has liberalised access to postal voting. That has produced a ten-fold increase in postal voting, from around 2% in 2001 to around 20% at the last two elections. With the peculiar British tradition of all votes being counted centrally after 10pm on election night, the surge in postal voting has required electoral authorities to pre-process postal votes in the days before the election, to open and verify the returned postal votes.
These postal votes are not tallied by candidate until election night, but the extraction of votes from the postal envelope can be observed by scrutineers, all of whom will try to sample the vote mark on any ballot paper they see. It is illegal for any party worker to distribute information on these counts, but there was at least one report at last December’s UK election that the Labour Party knew it had lost from the postal vote check count.
If Australian pre-poll votes are going to be counted before 6pm, it is clear that New Zealand has the best method to emulate.
Arguments in Favour of the Early Counting of Pre-Poll Votes
- The early start to counting can ensure that all counts are completed at a reasonable time in the evening.
- It should be easier to hire staff for a shift running through the day rather than an evening shift that could run into the early hours of the morning.
- By completing the counting of all ordinary votes, including all pre-polls, the result would be clearer earlier in the night.
- New Zealand has counted Advance votes on election day before the close of polls for many elections without results leaking.
- The release of pre-poll counts completed shortly after the 6pm close of polls will provide a better picture of the overall election result compared to the current system that usually begins with a slow trickle of unrepresentative small rural polling places.
Arguments Against the Early Counting of Pre-Poll Votes
- It may not be possible to have enough secure premises to ensure the secrecy of counts. Kitchen and bathroom facilities must be included as part of the secure counting area.
- If scrutineers are free to leave the secure counting area at 6pm, they may report partial counts that can be confused with official returns.
- The New Zealand early count may be a guide, but will Australian parties and candidates be able to provide scrutineers to observe the count?
- Will the early release of pre-poll votes ruin the tension of election night coverage?
Is the Availability of Scrutineers an Insoluble Issue?
A scrutineer is entitled to check the sealing and opening of ballot boxes, entitled to see the reconcilliation sheets for ballot papers issued and votes counted, to observe the sealing for return of all paperwork and ballot papers for return, and to observe, question and challenge ballot papers as they are counted.
As preferences became a more important part of elections in the 1980s, the role of scrutineers on election night changed. The tallying of first preferences was left to AEC staff. Scrutineers switched to watching votes for third party candidates, trying to tally where preferences were flowing. The Labor Party was particularly good at this, with television number crunchers like Robert Ray and Graham Richardson attracting notice for being ahead of the official count thanks to their scrutineer reports.
The role changed again in 1993 when the AEC began carrying out indicative preference counts on election night. Scrutineers still observed the count, but many now just reported the indicative counts. These could be phoned through to party headquarters quicker than the AEC staff could phone through and enter the official results.
The traditional role of scrutineers, watching every vote, challenging formality, and making sure votes are tallied correctly, mainly takes place after election night. Once candidates and parties are aware which are the close contests, the best scrutineers are sent along for the count re-check and the counting of declaration votes.
There are situations where candidates and parties may wish to appoint experienced scrutineers to a pre-poll counts if conducted before 6pm on election day. In contests where it is unclear who will finish second and third, scrutineers sometimes attend to tally alternative preference flows.
It is a problem for candidates and parties if they need to send experienced campaigners along as scrutineers at the same time as campaigning is still underway on election day.
But if the roll of a party scrutineer on election day is mainly to report the official count ahead of the AEC, will the best scrutineers be required at the pre-poll count? If all votes have to be check-counted anyway after election day, are parties better off saving their best scrutineers for the post election day counts?
Is Secrecy Such an Issue?
The concern with secrecy is that counting before 6pm could result in results becoming known and influencing people who are still voting. We face this problem already at Federal elections with the release of exit polls before 6pm, and with the release of results in the nation’s south-east before voting has closed in other states. Would the leak of counting before 6pm be different to what already occurs?
In the three decades I have been covering Australian politics, I have never known scrutineer figures to leak. Even in this day of twitter, scrutineer reports are only delivered through the party’s official hierarchy of reporting. Parties want scrutineer results ahead of official figures so that leaders and candidates can work out their message for the evening, in particular so that party representatives on election panels can be kept ahead of the official figures.
If pre-poll counting starts before 6pm, parties would want to know those results as soon as possible, but primarily for their own internal purposes. As with attempts to sample count ballot paper sorts at the 2018 Victorian elections, parties always want to get an indication of the result as soon as possible.
One trend I have noticed in recent times is guests on the ABC election panel who very early report “partial counts”. From my observation, this is a clear attempt to use unofficial party returns to influence the tone of election night coverage. This is one reason why I would like to make sure that the early counting of pre-poll votes should aim to finish complete pre-poll centre counts by 6pm rather than partial counts leak out via scrutineers at 6pm.
As we saw at the 2019 election, the reports of exit polls influenced how all networks began their coverage of election night. Any counting of pre-poll votes before 6pm should aim to report completed results as quickly as possible rather than have unofficial partial counts colouring analysis.
Will Early Pre-Poll Counting Ruin Election Night Coverages?
The last two Federal elections have been close contests that produced election coverages that extended into the early hours of the next day. Much of the delay was due to the extended wait for counting to be finalised in large pre-poll centres.
Will the release of some pre-poll results shortly after 6pm ruin the tension of election night? Possibly in the case of an election with a clear result. But not at close elections where further counting of election day votes would be required to confirm predictions based on pre-poll counts.
It would significantly change Australian election night coverages. Instead of the slow scene-setting period waiting for the first results after 6pm, there is the potential for an early flood of maybe 25% of the vote in the first half hour. But it would also end the lingering extension of the count into the early hours of Sunday morning.
Suggested Guidelines for Early Counting of Pre-Polls
As a starting point for discussion, I would suggest the following guidelines if it is decided to allow the early counting of pre-polls.
- Early pre-poll counting only take place where premises can be secured. This should include secure bathroom and kitchen access.
- Candidates and parties be informed of the place and start time of all early counts.
- All scrutineers and most Electoral Commission staff will be required to hand in mobile communication devices before admission to the count.
- Selected Electoral Commission staff can have access to mobile devices for agreed administrative reasons. (eg to seek ruling on challenges)
- Commission staff will determine which pre-poll centres to count first and the information provided to candidates and agents before the count starts. It may be possible to notify this before election day.
- Precedence should be given to pre-poll centres where counting can be completed before the close of voting at 6pm. It will be best if whole pre-poll centres are completed and reported from 6pm, allowing both official and unofficial (via scrutineer) results to be transmitted after 6pm.
- Precedence should also be given to centres where both the first preference count and the indicative preference count can be completed before 6pm.
- No results be entered into the AEC’s result reporting computer system until after 6pm.
- If no pre-poll centre for a district has been finalised before 6pm, the count should continue in secrecy until at least one pre-poll centre has been finalised for first preferences.
These suggested guidelines are designed to ensure that results remain secret until voting closes, and also insure that the media and other observers can rely on official returns through the AEC after 6pm.
I have not suggested a start time for counting in this post. This may depend on the number of votes and the size of pre-poll centres to be counted. The aim of counting pre-poll votes is to bring forward the count from the late evening rather than to complete all pre-poll counts by 6pm. Whether counts start at noon, 2pm or 4pm is a matter for discussion. The point of principle is whether counting should be allowed to start before 6pm.
Even if pre-poll voting is not allowed before 6pm, one change that should be made is to allow the AEC to undertake its administrative processes for reconciling the count before 6pm so that pre-poll counting can begin as soon as possible after 6pm.
(Sources: This post has drawn on submissions made by me to the Federal Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and the NSW Parliament’s Electoral Matters Committee.)