Three significant milestones have been passed in recent days on the road to the election. They are, in ascending order of importance, the ballot paper draws and publication of full candidate lists; the publication of group ticket votes for above-the-line votes in the Senate; and last but not least, the launch of Crikey‘s electorate form guide.

The latter offers a comprehensive review of all electorates great and small, featuring details on candidates, histories, demographic peculiarities and preselection brawls. The entries will progressively be updated over the next three weeks to account for campaign events, electorally significant pork barreling and intelligence on opinion polling both public and private.

As always, the ballot paper draws on Friday proved good for a few column inches about the significance of the “donkey” vote, but in truth this beast’s glory days ended when they started identifying candidates’ parties on the ballot paper in 1984. Of greater interest was a sharp decline in the number of candidates, from 1054 in lower house seats at the 2007 election to 849.

Possibly this is a belated effect of the Howard government’s decision in 2005 to increase the sum required of candidates as a deposit. Some complain this limits voters’ range of choice, but in reality a large number of minor candidates with no prospect of victory has the highly undemocratic effect of driving up the informal vote.

The real game for psephologists was yesterday’s publication of the Senate voting tickets, which determine the preference allocations of the 95 per cent of voters who vote above the line.

This exercise inevitably generates controversy, most memorably in 2004 when deals involving Labor and the Democrats got Steve Fielding elected in Victoria from 1.8% of the vote. This time around left and right parties in Victoria have largely preferenced each other, giving Greens candidate Richard di Natale the straightforward task of gaining about 1% on either Labor or Liberal compared with 2007.

However, a new dispute has flared between the Greens and the Democrats in the Australian Capital Territory, where a Senate seat has loomed as a holy grail for the Greens due to the peculiar arrangements for territory Senators.

Whereas the overwhelming majority of Senators elected on August 21 will not commence their terms until the middle of next year, territory Senators’ terms are tied to the House of Representatives and thereby take effect immediately. There could thus be an immediate change in the balance of power that would end the Coalition-plus-Steve Fielding blocking majority, which will otherwise remain in place for nearly a year.

However, the Greens’ already difficult task has been dealt a blow by the Democrats’ decision to direct their preferences to the Liberals.

According to Democrats candidate Darren Churchill, the decision was inspired by the hope that Liberal incumbent Gary Humphries would be “a ‘small l’ liberal and a voice of moderation” in a Coalition government that would otherwise be “without restraint”.

The Greens accuse the Democrats of ratting on a deal, but the Democrats deny one was ever reached.

The Greens have been dealt a more subtle blow in New South Wales, where state upper house MP Lee Rhiannon is seeking to go federal, by the decision of Family First and the Christian Democratic Party to snub other right-wing parties and each other by sending preferences directly to the Coalition.

With a goal of exceeding Labor’s surplus after it elects its second Senator (which requires 28.6% of the vote), the favoured scenario for the Greens involved right-wing minor and micro-party votes consolidating behind a single candidate, then flowing to the Coalition in one hit when they were eliminated.

The third Coalition candidate would then be elected with a big surplus, most of which would flow to the Greens as Coalition preferences over Labor. Instead they will have to get there on the strength of their own vote and preferences from minor left candidates: not impossible, but much harder.

The Greens are much happier about the situation in Queensland, where they have never previously had a candidate elected at federal or state level. As well as the promise of a subdued Labor vote giving them an easy hurdle to clear, they will enjoy precisely the situation that has eluded them in New South Wales, courtesy of tight preference arrangements between an array of religious and right-wing micro-parties.

Similarly, the Greens have owed their success in Western Australia to a low Labor vote that has made it easy for them to get ahead of their third candidate. The Greens have cause for confidence that they can do this again, despite Labor getting a handy boost from Christian Democratic Party preferences. The Liberal vote looks like it will be high enough to prevent their third seat going to a rival party of the right — otherwise they could face a threat from whichever was the strongest, most likely the Nationals (who have preferenced several conservative minor parties ahead of the Liberals) or practised preference harvesters the Christian Democratic Party.

In South Australia, Sarah Hanson-Young’s win in 2007 was largely a peculiarity of the vote for the major parties being dampened by the 14.8% vote for Nick Xenophon, and they will now face a tougher task in overhauling them. Here too the Democrats have angered the Greens, this time by directing their preferences to Labor.

Another preference ticket eye-opener is the Liberals’ decision to favour Labor over the Greens in Tasmania. However, the effect of this is likely to be limited, as Tasmania is the one state where the Greens are good for a quota in their own right. The question is whether their seat will come at the expense of a third Labor candidate, as in 2004, or a third Liberal candidate, as in 2007. A general swing to the Liberals of about 5% will bring the seat their way.

All told, the Greens can probably be confident of four seats, potentially adding two more if they get some wind in their sails. The Coalition stands to lose one of the four seats it freakishly won in Queensland in 2004, and perhaps also seats in Victoria and Tasmania.

This makes it very hard to calculate a scenario in which the Greens don’t emerge with the balance of power in their own right. The only thing that could do it would be at least one state returning four Senators of the right and two of the left — a very remote possibility in Western Australia, and perhaps also in Queensland.

Read more of the Poll Bludger’s expert analysis at Crikey‘s electorate form guide.