Integrity and Transparency of the Ballot crucial in WA Senate Elections

| November 11, 2013

The Australian Electoral Commission was forced to apologise after they lost ballot papers in the West Australian Senate recount. Associate professor in political science Dominic O’Sullivan considers the prospects of new elections.

The missing ballot papers from the Western Australian Senate election recount follow the temporary loss of papers in the Victorian seat of Indi, where the independent Cathie McGowan defeated the Liberal front bencher Sophie Mirabella.

The Australian Electoral Commission advises that it can determine whether or not the missing votes would have made a difference, assuming they were correctly counted in the first instance, but cannot include them in the final count. The tardiness with which this process is being carried out adds to perceptions of incompetence that voters must surely be levelling against the Commission as they contemplate the possibility that the people declared elected to the state’s final two Senate seats may not, in fact, be those who received the requisite quota. A reliable and immediate account of the effect that the missing votes would have, if they could be counted, is essential to determining whether or not a new election ought to be held to restore the system’s credibility. Indeed, the expectation is that the Court of Disputed Returns will order a re-election as the whole system of government depends on public confidence that each person sitting in Parliament is actually the person voters have chosen.

It is also reasonable to wonder what other mistakes might have been made around the country. If there were such mistakes, did they have a material influence on the outcome? What is it about the Commission’s procedures that allow mistakes of this magnitude to occur? Is it simply human error, inadequate staff training, technical deficiencies or even corruption? The public needs to know the answers to these questions, many of which are under investigation by the former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, who needs to provide the answers quickly and authoritatively.

While these are the questions that really matter, because it is only by knowing the answers that we can decide whether or not we trust the counting process, the prospect of a new election in Western Australia is politically interesting for a number of other reasons. The Government has already suggested that it will use the election to seek affirmation of its mandate to remove the carbon tax. It will provide the first real test of principle for Bill Shorten’s leadership of the ALP. Campaigning on carbon policy is a sure loser in Western Australia, but a change of position would be cynically interpreted and electorally damaging. It will be an early test of Shorten’s ability to cast off the reputation of knife wielding ‘faceless man’ and establish himself as a serious policy campaigner.

Voters who supported the Australian Sports Party as a ‘protest vote’ at the September poll to elect a Senator with no serious scrutinised policy positions will have to consider the possibility that their votes may no longer constitute a protest in the traditional sense and actually elect somebody without serious credentials to the Senate, in a way that they almost certainly did not expect in September. Alternatively, voters may decide that this is an opportunity to elect somebody from beyond the mainstream to provide a genuinely alternative voice in the Senate. Either way, the Australian Sports Party candidate is likely to be put under much harsher scrutiny from both competitors and news media who would not have thought it necessary at the last poll.

However, the bigger point remains the integrity and transparency of the ballot, whatever the financial cost to the Commission, candidates and political parties.



  1. paddyb

    April 17, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    added complications
    Well said Dominic
    What you have said in relation to W.A. raises serious questions about the whole system of voting currently in use around Australia.
    When one adds factors such as compulsory voting; levels of adult illiteracy and innumeracy as calculated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics; and complicated voting systems such as Hare-Clark, quota preferential, and a single transferable vote, one might be forgiven for wondering what election results really mean.
    Viewed cynically, one might say that voting is a bit like playing with a stacked deck.