Polling Day in Moreland

So the election seems to have been called for the Coalition, though to be fair, they’ve been calling it since 10:00 am, which is ridiculous.

I’m not going to speculate on the awfulness of Abbott, and it’s too early to get into any really interesting conversations about the Senate.  Instead, I thought it might be fun to give you a day in the life of the sort of person who likes to keep herself busy on polling day…

My husband, in fact, is keeping himself even busier this year.  He’s working for the AEC, assisting with pre-polling and postal votes, and this evening, he is one of the people counting votes over in the Gellibrand electorate.

I stuck to Moreland, my home electorate, where I’ve been helping out the Greens, on the grounds that they are my preferred option of the three parties that have a reasonable chance of winning seats in the Lower House (I am, perhaps, being a little optimistic, but it looks like Bandt is going to hold his seat, so I’m clearly not entirely beyond the bounds of sense).

I started the morning by heading off to a small local polling booth where I was rostered on to hand out How to Vote cards.  As is my personal tradition, I’d brought cake with me to share with my fellow card hander-outers – it’s always good to be friendly with your colleagues, and when you are at a tiny booth in a very safe Labor seat, there’s really no need or motivation for acrimony.  Someone had wildly over-estimated how busy the booth would be – when I arrived there were two Greens, four Labor people and a lone Liberal.  And no voters.

The Green who had opened the booth was very pleased to see me and my cake – apparently the AEC people remembered me from scrutineering last time around and were very disappointed that the Green’s person showed up without cake!  So I duly fed cake to everyone, including the AEC official who had come out to see how we were getting along out there (it’s a very, *very* slow booth), and then, since I clearly wasn’t needed, I walked off to vote at one of the nearby primary schools, because much as my small booth is fun, it doesn’t feel like election day without a sausage sizzle.

Voting was amusing.  The primary school had representatives from the Sex Party, the Greens, Liberal, Labor and the Socialist Alliance, all of whom were on our lower house ticket, and also representatives from the Animal Justice Party and the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts (he had a very gorgeous sports car), who were not.  And GetUp were out in force, too.

The queue was very long – I think we were waiting about 45 minutes – but the girl next to me confided that she had no idea who to vote for in the Senate, but that her Dad wanted her to vote Liberal, and after that, we had plenty to talk about…!  (in case you are wondering, I did tell her up front that I was volunteering for the Greens, and tried to keep my comments useful rather than too actively persuasive… but something tells me that her Dad would not be happy with me, nonetheless.)

Then it was back to my small booth, grabbing the mandatory sausage in bread as I went, to hand out how to vote cards.  And that really was a lot of fun.  I enjoy being smiley and friendly at people, and this tends to get a good response from people, even if they don’t feel like voting.  The Labor guys, one of whom clearly viewed himself as a comedian, started complaining that this was cheating – to which I responded that *my* instructions said to smile when I offered someone a card, and it wasn’t my fault if the Labor party instructions were incomplete.  The Liberal bloke copped a lot of flak from all sides, which he took pretty well – it turns out that he actually has no political convictions at all and is not even eligible to vote, but his cousin was the local candidate, so…

The best political discussions are the ones you have at the polling booth, while waiting for voters to show up, so that was fun.  At the grass-roots level, our local Labor people have a lot in common with the Greens, and in fact, distinctly prefer the Greens’ refugee policy – we’re an area with a lot of immigrants, so this isn’t surprising.  I suspect many of us would rather like a Greens / Labor Coalition, but that’s really never going to happen, I think.  There was a certain amount of keeping score of who took cards from whom, which was amusing.  But there was a nice sense of camaraderie – if someone had to leave the booth for a few minutes, the rest of us would make sure his cards were still handed out to those who wanted them, and when one voter came up and started haranguing me about how the Greens were to blame for the Coalition’s inevitable win at this election, I stuck to being polite, friendly, and avoiding engagement (this also being on my instruction sheet, but also because there is really no point having that argument when someone is that convinced)… and the Labor guys started arguing with him at length about how this wasn’t fair…

By the end of my shift, we were all getting along like a house on fire, partly because our class clown was determined to get me and the Liberal guy to come to the Labor after-party.  Also, he was trying to convince the Liberal guy to start handing out Labor how to vote cards instead of Liberal ones, and trying to convince me that I wanted to enter local politics as an independent “I’d vote for you!”.  I suspect this was as much of a wind up as the bit about Liberals handing out how to vote cards…

I then walked home for a couple of hours rest before leaving for scrutineering at yet another booth, this one in Brunswick.

I absolutely love scrutineering – not so much the actual doing of it, as the fact that it exists.  I love it that representatives of any party can, if they choose, spend the whole evening looking over the shoulders of the vote counters to see what is going on.  And, I have to admit, I love it when I spot an informal vote in the Family First pile, or in the Liberal one.

This was the first time I’ve scrutineered at a booth where there was more than one person there for the Greens, and there was also a Labor chap and one from the Liberal party, to round things out.  The evening started with the scrutineers being invited to check the seals on all the boxes which the votes had gone into (though how someone could possibly change the seals or tamper with them during the day without anyone noticing is beyond me), and then we witnessed that the seals matched the numbers the booth had been given, and that the boxes were totally empty after the votes were dumped onto the table.

And then we watched people count votes.

There are a few things you watch for, when you are scrutineering.  Mostly, your goal is to make sure that any of your opponents’ votes that might be informal are questioned and set aside.  You also want to check that any of your obviously totally formal votes that some utterly unreasonable person might have thought were informal go back into the pile for counting.  So you try to stand near the informal pile and near the pile of the party you most need to see made informal.  Of course, as one of two Greens with a Labor person in the room, I could afford to be picky about Labor, and not just the Greens, because the Labor chap was also watching the Liberal piles like a hawk.

You find all sorts of interesting things on ballots.  A lot of drawings of penises, for one thing.  Charming remarks about the proclivities and personalities of various politicians, for another.  Someone had written “Down with Obama”, or words to that effect, which was a little bemusing in the circumstances.  Then you get the interesting ballots which have the same number twice.  Or illegible numbers, which are fun, because then you and the person whose party that vote might go to get to stand there arguing about the intention of the voter.  Or people will add extra numbers to a paper.  Or you will look at a vote and go, Oh, that has a number 10 on it, it must be informal, we only have eight candidates, and then realise that actually, the candidate names are different and the ballot has gone postal and escaped from its proper box.  So that’s fun.

Another thing we are encouraged to look at is preference flows.  Who are the Greens preferencing, Labor or Liberal (overwhelmingly, it’s Labor)?  Are the Liberals following the official preferences and putting the Greens last, or is old habit dying hard and are they putting the Greens ahead of Labor (pleasingly, they actually were preferencing us about a third of the time, at least in our booth, which is on the border of increasingly Green territory).

Do you want to know what happens to your vote on election night?  Well, first it gets let out of its little box and opened and sorted into a pile.  It gets checked for formality (ie, that you have filled the numbers in correctly).  Periodically, one of the booth managers comes by and reads everyone the rules about formality, so that they know what they are looking for.  Your vote gets put into a pile with the other first preference votes, under the eagle eye of scrutineers, who are checking again for formality.  Then someone else checks that pile.  Then the piles are all counted.  And then they are counted again.

Meanwhile, the booth manager checks that the number of votes matches the number of people who came to the booth today.  If the numbers don’t match, everything gets counted again.  If they still don’t match, the AEC staff start scouring the venue for votes discarded in places they shouldn’t be.

When everything matches, the numbers are phoned into the AEC, and two-party preferencing starts.

The AEC provides each booth with a sealed envelope indicating which two parties to use for the initial two party preferred count.  Usually, this is Liberal versus Labor.  The two parties are based on historic data for the whole electorate – so that you can have a situation where, as in our booth, the Greens got more votes than the Liberal Party, but we are fairly certain that across the electorate, the Liberals will have more votes, so preferences are counted assuming that this is the case.  Once the AEC has final numbers from every booth, they will check whether this really is the case, and if not, the two party preference count will be done a second time, with the proper two parties this time.  But the AEC is pretty good at predicting this, so generally, the two party preference count will stay as it is.

I do not have personal experience of what happens to your lower house vote after that.  My understanding is that all the votes from an electorate then go to the same place the following day and get counted *again*.  I believe the postal votes get incorporated at this point.  And there can be scrutineers for that process, too.  Votes marked informal come in for particular scrutiny, of course.

With the Senate, it’s more complicated – I believe only the above the line votes get looked at on election night, because the calculations are so fiendishly complicated.  Antony Green has a senate calculator here, but I have not yet located any votes to feed into it.  I’ll keep an eye on this over the next few days.

But the real point of this whole lengthy essay is this: that you can rest assured that your vote *will* be counted.  It will pass through many, many hands, and will be viewed not solely by the unbiased eyes of the AEC officials and employees, but by the thoroughly partisan eyes of scrutineers on many different sides of politics.  It will be viewed, reviewed, and re-reviewed, by eyes that are determined to ascertain the all-important Intent of the Voter.

And, assuming you haven’t lost count, or ticked all the boxes, or written little letters to us on why we should not go to war in Syria – though, you know, you can draw all the flowers and write all the essays you like on your ballot, so long as you also number it consecutively from first to last preference – your vote will not be lost.  It will not be wasted.  It will be counted, and it will count.

No computers.  No automated counting.  Just pencils, paper, and several thousand dedicated humans.

Really, when you think about it, isn’t our electoral system *cool*?

(Even if it doesn’t really feel that way tonight.)

11 thoughts on “Polling Day in Moreland

  1. 45 minute queue?!? Wow, I just walked in and straight up to the desk – and this was at a polling station with a sausage sizzle and a cake stall!! I think the majority of people decided to vote postally or pre-vote this time, it did seem very quiet this year. Which was a bit of a shame for the local primary school, whose sausage sizzle/cake stall it was – this is why they should have ADVERTISED!!

    • Eep! And the Liberal Democrats are getting one in New South Wales! Now I really am scared…

      (thanks for the link, I was trying to do it manually through my original link, and getting really *weird* results for South Australia, where apparently Nick Xenophon was getting two seats and the voluntary euthanasia people were also getting two, despite not contesting this election…)

  2. Thanks for this glimpse. It’s wonderful that real people actually handle the votes and all those stupid and not-so-stupid messages do get seen. Makes me want to write something on mine next time – probably a “thank you for processing my vote” or something like that. I was too scared to mark the senate paper in particular after all the work I put into those 97 numbers.

    My whole family was sick yesterday. I had to race off to the doctor with my baby first thing in the morning, then left her with my sick husband while I voted. My poor husband then stumbled off to the polling station with a raging temperature, while I nursed the baby with a raging temperature. At least my elder child and I have started to get over it. But it made me think there really should be some sort of back up plan in place for people who unexpectedly just cannot get to a polling station on the day.

    • Hi Elle,

      You are very welcome! It’s one of the reasons I love scrutineering so much. But I totally understand you about not wanting to mess up your senate ticket. I’ve been told that you can actually vote in Roman numerals and still be valid, which is a wickedly tempting thought at times, but I’ve never quite dared… what if none of the people who checked the vote knew that?

      I’m so sorry to hear that your whole family had election fever! I think the AEC does actually have people going around hospitals on the day, but I imagine they wouldn’t be messing with the emergency departments. I shall try to find out more.

  3. I’ve just read this. I know it is way past the election Cate but I really enjoyed reading about what happens on election day. I’m an ALP supporter but like you I would love to see an ALP/Greens coalition. Never say never. I much prefer the Greens policy on asylum seekers but I want to vote for a party that will be in government.

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