Overworked, inexperienced, hungry. Election day as a vote-counter and scrutineer can be tough, and mistakes — as the Western Australian Senate debacle proves — can happen. Clive Palmer has been quick to point the finger at the Electoral Commission, but it seems we should be looking to Canberra.

The cost of the 2013 election hasn’t been confirmed but it’s believed to be around $113 million, only marginally up from the $108 million spent in 2010. While electoral experts say we have one of the best systems in the world, those on the ground say election day was a gruelling day of chaos for employees. Employees, experts and scrutineers all say more money needs to be spent on more training for more staff to stop standards slipping.

An experienced AEC casual employee told Crikey that this year’s election was the “most disorganised” the employee had ever been involved in, with staff for their polling booth not confirmed until the Thursday before the election. AEC spokesperson Phil Diak told Crikey he had no comment on the claim, except that “the AEC reviews every election that it conducts and there is also a comprehensive review of each federal election by the joint standing committee on electoral matters”.

As an officer in charge (or OIC) of a polling booth, our insider worked from 5.30am on Saturday until 1.30am on Sunday. The staff that counted votes after 6pm were the same that had been staffing polling stations all day. “We didn’t get a break for dinner, they didn’t even order pizza in at all,” the insider said.

In fact, the count on Saturday night doesn’t impact the final result — ballot papers are recounted and preference data sorted through computer software in the week after the election. Even so, in order to get a preliminary result for the waiting media, even experienced staff are struggling towards the end of the night.

“By the time you count the Senate you just don’t care any more,” our insider said. This is backed up by a Crikey tipster who worked on election day and told us that at one polling station, “a lot of below-the-line votes end up in the informal pile because when sorting the giant ballot papers you got into the habit of just scanning the 37-odd boxes above the line for a No. 1. I rescued quite a few BTL votes from the informal pile, and I’m sure there were more.”

Below-the-line voters can be assured their votes would have been counted in the second count with fresh scrutiny, but it raises the question of whether staff should be pushed so hard when their work will be re-done anyway. PhD candidate at the Australian National University and election expert Jennifer Rayner says the “only thing that really matters is that the amount of ballot papers handed out is the number they have at the end of the day”.

“A lot of these problems are not administration difficulties but from the politicians themselves … there are many people with fingers in the pie.”

Multiple tipsters highlighted the lack of experience in the ranks of AEC casuals. “Some of the other OICs had never worked for the AEC before, I felt really sorry for them,” one reported. “They had three hours’ training and one [hour] of computer training before the election, it’s not enough … Some of the staff were really just there as admin staff, you need people who are passionate about running elections.”

More staff with more experience are needed, especially after 6pm, says another electoral worker. “The most sensible thing would be to bring in a new team of specialist (preferably experienced) vote counters at 6pm who are awake and fresh and aware of the rules regarding informalities, etc. I realise that this further increases the number of employees needed on the day. A further solution might be simply to do away with the vote counting on the night, as everything gets recounted by the AEC in the days after the election anyway,” the worker wrote to Crikey.

An experienced scrutineer for the Greens with experience in administering elections stresses that, for the most part, election booths are run well by experienced people — only some were “poor” — but there is a trend of more badly run booths at each election. He says the training budget appears to have been cut and that an “increasingly corporate structure” means too much emphasis is placed on efficiency, when “efficiency isn’t the most important thing, getting it right is”. He says that instead of bringing in new staff at 6pm, there should be more staff throughout the day so that staff can rotate and have proper breaks. “The solution is to run the system with a bit more leeway for problems,” he said.

The AEC says staff are adequately trained and know they are signing up to a long day. “The AEC employs over 70,000 staff to work on election day and the AEC clearly requires that it is a long day, from opening of polls to close of polling places on election night,” Phil Diak said. “It is an environment that had existed for a very long time. The AEC has successfully recruited staff to work on the federal election and to provide the services that are required.”

Multiple experts told Crikey the blame doesn’t lie with the AEC but with the parliamentarians who want efficiency without supplying the funds.

Rayner says there is a “solid, robust” electoral system in Australia, and “we’ve never had a case of electoral fraud proven”. Campbell Sharman, adjunct professor in the department of political science at the University of British Columbia in Canada (previously of the University of Western Australia), says we “shouldn’t get too hot under the collar” over mistakes like the missing votes in WA. But he says the AEC can be seen as too bureaucratic, and the problems are not with the way elections are administered but from politicians who cling to flexible election timetables.

“Governments don’t like long election campaigns,” Sharman said. “A lot of these problems are not administration difficulties but from the politicians themselves … there are many people with fingers in the pie.”