Steve Fielding’s path to Senate salvation is shaping up to be much closer than the pundits are predicting. The devout CityLife church pointman, who first staked his claim to a parliamentary seat in 2004, again could get lucky in Victoria — this time through a combination of below-the-line votes and yet-to-be-counted absentee ballots.

According to one senior scrutineer familiar with the situation, the chance of a Fielding triumph in the sixth and final Senate position is about 50%, with Liberal Senator Julian McGauran and the DLP’s John Madigan splitting the difference. But others, including the ABC’s Antony Green, have stumped for McGauran outright.

Currently, based on Green’s Senate Calculator, and with about 80% of the vote counted, the DLP moves ahead of Fielding and into a winning position at the 18th count, due largely to preferences drawn from right-wing minnows One Nation and Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party.

There are two main scenarios in which Fielding can close the crucial 3,506 vote gap between the two parties and keep in the race as the count progresses. If he stays ahead of Madigan, the Family First Senator will eventually be pushed over the line by McGauran’s preferences and secure another 6 years on the red leather.

First, Fielding could increase his share of the total vote through the 250,000 uncounted absentee ballots that should favour him (or the DLP could decrease its share of the irregular vote more than Fielding does). In Victoria, there are about 600,000 postal, pre-poll and absentee ballots, only about a quarter of which have been counted — the vast majority are still in envelopes.

Second, the vexed issue of below-the-line preferences could weigh heavily, despite the difficulty in predicting where these will end up. In short, all ordinary below-the-line votes (excluding postal, absentee and pre-poll) are tallied on election night. These figures are then posted on the AEC website and fed into Green’s calculator. But both the above and below-the-line votes are stacked in the same pile, according to their first preference. These so-called ‘unapportioned’ ballots are then sent from the polling place to Victoria’s central count headquarters in Collins Street to be separated out. Currently, the AEC website suggests only about half have been, with below-the-line postals yet to be broached at all.

Under Green’s calculation, all votes are assumed to follow the Senate group ticket but in reality about 4% — or 75,000 ballots — will ‘leak’ across the ballot, potentially favouring Fielding. When this happens, both the DLP and Family First’s preference flow will be scattered among the other parties, and possibly to each other.

The DLP’s main benefactors — One Nation and the CDP — will almost certainly abandon them to some degree below the line. For example, it seems unlikely diligent CDP Protestants would consciously preference the rabid Catholics of the DLP due to simmering tensions stemming from the Reformation (to name just one fissure). Of course, Fielding also relies on preferences, mostly from the Climate Sceptics and the Citizens Electoral Council, but because he starts ahead of the DLP on the initial allocation he is dependent on smaller numbers and is therefore less vulnerable when they disperse.

According to Crikey‘s calculations, Fielding is likely to net at least 400 extra votes by factoring in positive below-the-line leakage from One Nation and the CDP — both parties that initially favoured the DLP above the line. That could narrow the current differential to about 3,000, with absentees and postals potentially taking care of the rest. But even if Fielding is able to pull ahead of his DLP brethren, he could still face trouble at the Pearly Gates in the form of McGauran.

At the penultimate count, the DLP is currently only 18,617 votes ahead of McGauran, on Green’s calculations. Fielding, if he drew ahead, would hold a similar lead because he would benefit from a similar preference flow (ie: the DLP’s preferences would be distributed to him, rather than the other way around).

But that would almost certainly be reduced when the scattered below-the-line vote is calculated, and will probably decline even further when Liberal postals and absentees from places such as Mount Hotham and the French Riviera are factored in.

This would leave McGauran to be catapulted over a quota at count 24 by Fielding, or in the other scenario, the DLP’s Madigan.

In about 10 days we will know for sure.