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Kerryn Phelps Wentworth

On the road to what now looks sure to be a narrow victory for Kerryn Phelps, the Wentworth byelection came close to presenting Australia with a 2000 US presidential election moment.

The stakes may not have been as high, or the course as convoluted, as when American media outlets called the decisive state of Florida for Al Gore, then called it back again, then called it for George W Bush, then finally retracted that as well, before the matter was ultimately settled in the courts.

Nonetheless, the loss of the Morrison government’s majority proved a closer run thing than seemed possible as the early trickle of votes turned into a flood on Saturday night, and the numbers appeared to settle at between 54-46 and 55-45 in favour of Phelps.

Antony Green called it for Phelps on the ABC at around 7.15pm; victory and concession speeches followed in quick succession barely an hour later; and from there the caravan moved on to recriminations, celebrations, back-biting and schadenfreude, leaving only the most dedicated of number crunchers to continue extracting what entertainment the count had left to offer.

However, what happened much later in the evening suggested election prognostication has not fully caught up with the uncertainties created by the new age of mass pre-poll voting.

This phenomenon reached a watershed when pre-poll votes began to be counted on election night in 2010, thanks to the lifting of the requirement that they be lodged in signed declaration envelopes so their details could be checked before their admission to the count.

As the rate of pre-poll voting continued to swell from less than 10% in 2007 to nearly 25% in 2016, election night has increasingly been characterised by long gaps between reporting of ordinary day booth results and those from the much larger pre-poll centres.

Wentworth was typical in that the ordinary booths, the largest of which handled just over 4000 votes, had all wrapped up by 9.30pm, whereas the pre-poll voting centres, one of which had nearly 7000 votes, weren’t done until almost midnight — by which time the hot takes for the morning papers were long out of the microwave.

As it turned out, all concerned had reason to be more circumspect.

It might be assumed this was due to failure of pre-poll votes to catch the full effect of the government’s self-inflicted disasters over the previous fortnight, but the two pre-poll voting centres that operated both before Saturday and in 2016 were just as hard on the Liberals as everywhere else.

The real difference was that a new pre-poll centre had been established right on the harbourside at Rose Bay, and it seems this drew many locals who had previously opted to vote on polling day, rather than sully themselves alongside the riff-raff at Bondi Junction.

So it was that shortly before the stroke of midnight, the Rose Bay centre disgorged the unexpectedly hefty sum of 6431 formal votes, nearly 70% of which went to Liberal candidate Dave Sharma after preferences.

In one blow, Phelps’s lead was slashed from 4.4% to 1.9% — and with as many as 10,000 traditionally Liberal-friendly postal votes still in the can, the race was suddenly back on.

The revival of Sharma’s hopes continued in the morning, when more than 5000 postal votes broke at about the rate he needed to win.

However, it now seems this marked the peak of his fortunes.

Rechecking of ordinary votes, which was half completed at the close of business yesterday, turned up two significant anomalies in Phelps’ favour, and a second batch of 1165 postals wasn’t quite as good for Sharma as the first.

Phelps goes into today’s counting with a lead of 1616, with maybe 3000 postal votes and 500 of other kinds still to come.

Sharma needs at least 70% of these, and even with all the caution due after the progress of the count so far, it can be stated with near certainty that he won’t get them.

His only hope is the uncovering of an anomaly to compare with the 1000 votes that showed up in Indi on the Wednesday after the 2013 election, which proved decisive in Sophie Mirabella’s 395 vote defeat at the hands of Cathy McGowan — whom Kerryn Phelps will almost certainly be joining soon on the cross bench.

Peter Fray

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