The WA Senate election gets murkier still, with the two winners originally declared on the basis of a 14-vote difference junked in favour of two other winners declared on the basis of a 12-vote difference. With over 1000 votes known to be missing, it's likely to be a case of see you in court, and then back on the hustings.
Two number-crunchers out in web-land have made the effort to identify which votes have gone missing by comparing booth results from the first and second counts, and they have reached the same conclusion: but for the missing votes, the result at the decisive point in the count would have been very close to a tie. One is Ben Raue at the Tally Room, while the other is an anonymous commenter on a pseudonymous blog that of Truth Seeker, whose statistical work on the Senate count process has won great acclaim. Despite the obscurity of the latter source, he or she is clearly well on top of the situation.
It is clear that what has gone missing is bundles of votes for particular parties, the numbers of which can be determined with considerable precision despite the minor adjustments to the vote totals which legitimately resulted from the recount process. I will now deal with the four booths in turn, using the numbers determined by Anonymous. Keep in mind that the only votes with the capacity to change the result are those cast for Shooters & Fishers, Australian Christians or the smaller micro-parties which fed them preferences: Australian Independents and the Fishing & Lifestyle Party in the former case, No Carbon Tax Climate Sceptics in the latter.
Mount Helena: This booth produced the most important discrepancy with the disappearance of its complement of above-the-line votes for Shooters & Fishers, of which there were 14. Also gone are the Liberals’ tally of 370 above-the-line votes, together with nine for Animal Justice.
Wundowie: Together with its 29 informal votes, the above-the-line votes of nine different parties have disappeared from this booth. Those relevant to the result are three votes for Australian Christians and one each for No Carbon Tax and Australian Independents. Also gone: 166 Liberal, 164 Labor, eight Smokers Rights, seven Help End Marijuana Prohibition, five Wikileaks, and one Katter’s Australian Party.
Bunbury East: The 152 votes missing from this booth appear to be the above-the-line votes for nine parties, the only ones relevant to the result being three for Australian Independents and one for No Carbon Tax Climate Sceptics. The others were 112 votes for the Greens, 12 for Animal Justice, 11 for Family First, six for Wikileaks, three for Stop the Greens, two for Katter’s Australian Party and one for the Secular Party, together with 77 of the 81 informal votes cast at the booth.
Henley Brook: This one was straightforward and, ultimately, not important: 349 Liberal above-the-line votes are missing, leaving 286 still in the count.
Tallying that up suggests Shooters & Fishers have lost 18 votes and Australian Christians five. Ben Raue’s calculation is very slightly different at nineteen and four, as he counts a missing Australian Fishing & Lifestyle Party vote and has one less vote missing for Australian Christians, which Anonymous thinks likely to have been genuine recount corrections. Either way, the numbers suggest that reverting to the first-count results for these booths, as I have been advocating, would cause the result to flip back to Louise Pratt and Dio Wang based on the smallest margins imaginable one vote by Anonymous’s reckoning, and three by Ben Raue’s.
For the vast civilian majority in Western Australia that would sooner not have to vote again, today’s conclusion of the Senate election recount has delivered the worst possible outcome, with the original result overturned by an excruciatingly narrow margin. On the basis of the unquestionably flawed and incomplete recount, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam and Australian Sports Party candidate Wayne Dropulich will be declared the winners in place of Labor Senator Louise Pratt and Palmer United Party candidate Dio Wang.
The key to the result remains the point at which the lead candidates of either Shooters & Fishers or the Australian Christians are excluded. If it’s the former, Shooters & Fishers preferences sustain Dropulich at a point in the count where he would otherwise be excluded, ultimately allowing him to finish ahead of Wang off the base of a tiny primary vote after harvesting preferences left, right and centre. Wang’s preferences then flow to Ludlam, giving him victory ahead of Pratt. But if Shooters & Fishers stay in the count, Dropulich is unable to overtake them, a point arrives where he is excluded, and Shooters & Fishers themselves are ultimately unable to get ahead of Wang, who wins a seat when the various micro-party preferences are distributed. With Wang’s votes used to get himself elected, his exclusion does not provide Ludlam with the mass transfer of preferences he needs, causing him to be left holding the bag with Pratt’s election to the final seat.
In the original count, Count 139 famously delivered a 14-vote victory to the Shooters & Fishers candidate with the following numbers:
BOW (Shooters & Fishers) 23,515
VAN BURGEL (Australian Christians) 23,501
However, the recount has turned this into a 12-vote lead for Australian Christians at what’s now Count 141:
VAN BURGEL (Australian Christians) 23,526
BOW (Shooters & Fishers) 23,514
But of course, the latter result excludes the famous 1255 missing above-the-line votes, which were cast at the Bunbury East, Mount Helena, Henley Brook and Wundowie booths.
If I had anything to do with the matter, I’d be very determined to craft an outcome that didn’t require a fresh election, which will have a disastrous impact on the public’s confidence in the system. The best chance of avoiding that would have been for the recount to have reaffirmed the original result, which might have given the High Court the confidence to determine that the recount should stand, warts and all. However, that’s gone out the door now that counts have produced different results with respect to not one but two seats.
The other chance of an out involved the requirement that a discrepancy be big enough to be decisive before it can be used as a basis for overturning a result. Under happier circumstances, the availability of first count results from the four affected booths might have served as evidence that this wasn’t so. While 1255 votes sounds like a lot in the context of the margins under discussion, it must be kept in mind that the only votes which actually have the potential to affect the result are those cast either for Shooters & Fishers, Australian Christians or other micro-parties which fed them preferences (remembering we’re only dealing with predictable above-the-line votes here below-the-line votes were not included in the recount process, presumably on the basis that they were thoroughly scrutineered during the data entry process). Those parties are the Australian Fishing & Lifestyle Party and Australian Voice in the case of Shooters & Fishers, and the Rise Up Australia Party in the case of Australian Christians. Based on the published results for the first count, the four polling booths at issue delivered 61 votes to the Shooters & Fishers and 60 votes to Australian Christians (UPDATE: The previous two sentences are not quite right see the update at the top of the post for a more accurate account). However, it’s not enough simply to add those votes to the existing totals and achieve a hypothetical result, as not all of the votes from the four affected polling booths went missing. In short, the situation appears far too unclear to say that the missing votes could not have affected the result, given the narrowness of the margin involved.
My own preferred solution, which I advocated in an article for Crikey yesterday, was for the High Court to direct the Australian Electoral Commission to use the first count results from the four affected polling booths and the recount results from everywhere else. I wouldn’t presume to say that there are no legal difficulties involved in this, but it would appear to me to pass the common sense test. Given that the number of missing votes on which the result might hinge is around 120, and the likelihood that these particular votes were counted more-or-less correctly the first time around, it could have been hoped that the margin at the key point in the recount would have been big enough to allow such a result to proceed with an adequate level of confidence. But with just 12 votes in it, that becomes a lot harder to do.
William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, is one of the most heavily trafficked forums for online discussion of Australian politics, and joined the Crikey stable in 2008.