For the vast majority of Western Australians who would sooner not have to suffer another election campaign, the conclusion of the Senate recount on Saturday delivered the worst possible result. The announcement of the revised winning candidates came two days after it emerged that 1375 votes had gone missing during the recount, essentially ensuring that the matter would end up in court.

The best hope for averting a fresh election was a reaffirmation of the original result, but that was thwarted when the Australian Electoral Commission computer spat out the names of Senator Scott Ludlam of the Greens and Wayne Dropulich of the Australian Sports Party, overturning the first-round victories of Labor’s Louise Pratt and Dio Wang of the Palmer United Party.

It might still have been hoped that the margins involved would be big enough to preclude the possibility of the missing votes changing the result. There was a better chance of that than the number of missing votes suggested, as at one point in the count either Shooters & Fishers or Australian Christians had to be eliminated. So the only votes with the capacity to change the result were the small number cast either for these parties, or for three even smaller parties that fed them preferences.

Alas, the relevant margin was just 12 votes — 23,526 for Australian Christians against 23,514 for Shooters & Fishers. There was a 14-vote gap between them (with the Shooters & Fishers on top) in the original count. Had Shooters & Fishers remained ahead, Dropulich would not have received their preferences and would himself have been excluded, thereby changing the entire complexion of the result.

My own favoured solution, for which I argued in Crikey on Friday, involved results from the first count being used for the four polling booths from which votes went missing, and recounted results being used for the rest of the state. However, that pillar also falls away when the differences between the original count and the recount are observed, as two online chroniclers have made the effort to do.

Among the specific bundles of votes that went missing were one of 14 cast for Shooters & Fishers, together with a further four or five votes relevant to each of the two parties. The best guess is that a count completed on the proposed basis would result in Shooters & Fishers finishing one solitary vote ahead of Australian Christians.

However much a fresh election might anger the public, it would take a very bold High Court to overturn Saturday’s result based on an effectively non-existent margin, or to uphold it given the known exclusion of so many votes.

Not the least of the misfortunes to emerge from the present situation is that the AEC has gained an undeserved reputation for incompetence, potentially giving cover to politically interested parties to propose “reforms” inspired by ulterior motives. The rest of us should be on guard against the temptation to ascribe to individuals a state of affairs that is ultimately systemic in its causes.

“Historically, such errors have tended to pass unnoticed by all but the most painstaking observers …”

A national election involves the casting of over 13 million voters for each house, which are handled by short-term employees following procedures carefully prescribed by legislation. Easy as it may be for the armchair critic to insist that this vast logistical exercise be conducted without any hitches, a certain rate of error is inevitable.

Historically, such errors have tended to pass unnoticed by all but the most painstaking observers, occurring as they did in the context of elections dominated by two major parties plus one prevailing minor party of the time.

Results for six-seat half-Senate elections typically involved the major parties either winning a clear three quotas or falling short and having to fight a minor party for the final seat. While it was certainly possible for such results to go down to the wire, there were generally only one or two decisive points in the count where it could happen.

Similarly, lower house elections might occasionally be close enough to fall within the range of possible errors, but they usually do so only at the final count, and in circumstances where there is a genuinely fine balance of opinion within the electorate. But with the election just held for the Senate — and, for all anybody knows, Senate elections generally in future — no party in any state polled the 42.9% required for a third quota in its own right, and nearly a quarter of the national vote was cast for parties other than Labor, the Coalition and the Greens.

With well over a quota’s worth of micro-party votes splashing around, there is an exponentially greater chance that exclusions early in the count will assume decisive importance, and with it the danger that obscure errors will prevent a clean result. Worse still, the fruit of all this complexity is a system that produces results as perverse as the one declared on Saturday, in which Labor’s 348,401 votes won it the same number of seats as the Australian Sports Party with 2997.

So rather than respond to the present fiasco by launching an inquisition against the AEC, which in most respects serves as an example for the rest of the world to follow, the focus should be on giving it a simpler and more logical job to do — one with less potential to miscarry, which ends with the election of senators who can meaningfully be said to be chosen in accord with the expressed will of the electorate.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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