Hanging Chads

In 2000 the USofA had their famous “hanging chads” election. Without rehashing American democratic history the Florida recount descended into farce, with counting of hole punched voting cards being key to the presidential result. The electoral officials provided some comical images but were not responsible for the farce.

Hanging chad voter card

On to Australia in 2013. The Australian Electoral Commission is one of the great uncredited contributions to the strength of Australian democracy – consistent, nationwide, professional, and impartial. Almost anything out of Clive Palmer’s mouth can be ignored, the AEC has served the Australian electorate magnificently, until the 2013 WA Senate count.

Now, however Australian electoral history (should that be current affairs) looks like a tin pot African nation with a president for life, proudly declaring another rousing success at the polls.

So what has actually happened?

Antony Green to the rescue – http://blogs.abc.net.au/antonygreen/2013/11/whats-going-on-with-the-wa-senate-counct.html#more

On the first count, due to above the line voting (without elector preferences) the parties arrange preference deals, and the final 2 senate seats (of 6) depended on whether the Shooters and Fishers outlasted the Australian Christians. If S&F outlasted AC then Palmer United and ALP took the final 2 senate seats. If AC outlasted S&F the final two seats went to the Australian Sports Party and The Greens.

On the first count Shooters and Fishers led the Australian Christians by 14 (fourteen!) votes, and PUP and ALP were declared.

A number of parties (including the seat losing The Greens) have requested a recount which has been underway and is now declared.

What is the NOT the responsibility of the AEC?

The AEC can only operate within the rules it’s been given. The initial count, the paper marked with pencil, and the recount, and the declaration are all as required by the legislation the AEC acts under.

What is the responsibility of the AEC?

Running this process in a robust fashion – spectacularly not achieved in this instance and absolutely the responsibility of the AEC.


To suggest that this is a low for the AEC is a very generous summary. Getting the count right, and not losing ballet papers should be a given. In this instance it is not a given and this particular egg is broken and comprehensively scrambled. There is probably no way forward from here that is satisfactory. There is almost certainly no way forward from here that does not involve significant and legitimate controversy, and damage to the AEC, and by extension the reputation of Australian democracy.

Where are we?

The AEC have undertaken a count, have declared it, and are unhappy with the outcome – the AEC itself may be party to a claim before the Court of Disputed returns if no other party was. A moot point as plenty of parties will dispute the return.

The first 4 senators have been elected “easily” and even allowing for any plausible level of error, miscount etc their election is a constant, across both counts, and any likely future counts. The final 2 senators are the complexity, and line ball nature of party preference flows (from Above The Line “1”s) is what now creates the problem.

This will end up in the court of disputed returns – it should.

Nick Xenophon has proposed putting legislative amendment through parliament PRIOR to any new WA election.

What should happen next?

Nick Xenophon’s suggestions are good, however, there is NO circumstance under which these reforms should be implemented before any fresh WA senate election.

The Court of Disputed returns needs to unscramble the egg and determine the 5th and 6th Senators for WA without, that’s right without, going through another electoral process. A fresh election disenfranchises the 4 elected Senators – what do you do if they do NOT win their seats in a subsequent election?

Equally relevant, a fresh election gives WA voters a look at the lower house and non WA senate result BEFORE voting. If we are sufficiently precious about this bias so as to delay TV broadcasting into WA until the close of polls, how is this vote after the vote appropriate now? Its not. A fresh election opens a whole new Pandora’s box if I can mangle a metaphore 🙂

All parties (I hold no actual hope for Palmer or The Greens) should carefully consider the impact of their comments now, and their comments and actions later in terms of setting precedents. The precedents set in this situation will be there for future reference, and future use and abuse, and cannot be undone.

What else should happen next? – longer term

Amendment to the Electoral Act to require above the line preferences, and continue to allow full below the line elector preferencing – eliminating totally the anti-democratic party preference deals and the nonsense that flows from that.

Amendment to the Electoral Act to bring our voting process into the 20th Century. Pencil on paper is ridiculous, and so far from robust it is ridiculous. It is a quaint continuity which it is now time to remedy.

People should all take a deep breath, the AEC is, even now, a fabulous contribution to the Australian democratic process. Clive Palmer, and The Greens should be ignored, they will each loudly promote any line that suits self interests, and disregard the consequences.


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