The Long Count in Oz

Paul Gronke and James Hicks
Early Voting Information Center
August 26, 2010
Crossposted at

I spent the end of last week in Bellingham, WA (a wonderful city by the way–but keep it a secret!) and experienced the impact of a “slow count” firsthand.  At least in Washington, the vote totals are updated daily, and for the press, this seems to provide an ongoing source of breathless coverage, as pundits (my friend Todd Donovan, a professor at Western Washington among them) speculate about the remaining ballots.

But much of our conversation as the week went on centered on the Australian election.

Nearly a week after polling day, as many as two million “special” ballots remain uncounted in the Australian federal election, and the balance of party control remains in question. While the parties continue to maneuver over potential governing coalitions, 14% of ballots cast have yet to be counted.

How did Australia get into this situation?

Observers of elections in the United States have lots of experience with slow counts.

In the Alaskan Senatorial primary battle between Joe Miller and incumbent Lisa Murkowski, Miller currently holds a 1,900 vote lead with 10,000 absentee votes left to be counted.  According to the Alaska Secretary of State’s website, “early” and “in-person absentee” ballots are counted “from election night through up to 15 days after the election.”  Unlike many other American jurisdictions, Alaska is a “postmark state”: so long as absentee ballots are mailed on or before Election Day, they will be counted up to the 10th day after the election. The slow count in Alaska is exacerbated by another provision in state law that early in person votes cannot start to be processed until 8 pm on Election Night.

So too in Washington State, voters only need postmark their ballot by Election Day. Election outcomes can play out over a period of several weeks while ballots trickle in to local offices and are processed and counted.  The Gregoire/Rossi vote count in Washington’s very close Governor’s race in 2004 was a good example, but ongoing coverage of close races in the state continue to provide examples.

California regularly has slow counts for a different reason. The state allows absentee ballots to be returned to any precinct in the county on Election Day. (121,274 ballots were returned in LA County’s 2008 general election in this way.) Obviously, these ballots cannot be processed — signatures verified, envelopes opened, voter intent determined, and votes counted — until well after the polls close.

So where is Australia?  It turns out that, in some ways, Australia has adopted the worst of all rules — at least in terms of determining an election outcome on a timely basis.  Like many things in Australia, according to Todd, the country’s election law is a fusion of America and Britain, with a bit of Australasian flair.

The various categories of non-precinct-place voting in Australia are wide-ranging:

  • An absent voter in Australia votes on Election Day, but outside of her home division.
  • An interstate voter casts a ballot outside his home state, but on Election Day. (These citizens can cast a ballot at an ‘interstate voting center’, but we have no information how these ballots are counted.)
  • A pre-poll vote is what Americans would understand as an early in-person. The ballot is cast in a voter’s home division, before Election Day, at an early voting center or any divisional office. (Both pre-poll and postal voters need to satisfy one of a number of conditions, but these are relatively lax. For example, the conditions include “being 8km away from your polling place on Election Day,” or “traveling or unable to leave work.” A similar condition applies to voters in Virginia who work in DC and it has resulted in a notable spike in “excuse required” absentee voting in that state.)
  • A postal vote would be understood by Americans to be an absentee ballot. Like Alaska and Washington, a ballot need only be postmarked, not necessarily delivered, by Election Day.

In Australia, these non-precinct-place ballots are known as “declaration votes”. Unlike regular polling-place votes, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) is expressly forbidden from even opening the envelopes of declaration votes until after Election Day.

So, like Alaska, California, and other jurisdictions before it, Australia now finds that the outcome of its election hinges on a slow and methodical count of absentee ballots. The diverse voting methods and lenient policies are doubtless a boon for many voters, but as with any aspect of electoral administration, there’s a cost to be borne. In this case, the price is a slow count.

This is not a problem, per se. Indeed, ensuring the widest possible franchise in a county with mandatory voting is a laudable goal. But it is something for election administrators and policymakers to pay heed to. Still, in Australia’s case, the Electoral Commission might look to the example of Oregon (a state with a great deal of practical experience in this area), and allow officials to open, verify, and process — though not actually count — ballots before Election Day.