Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Election day 1990

BRUCE WEBSTER: Now we welcome back Trevor Wilson from the Australian Electoral Commission, to talk about the election count.

TREVOR WILSON: On polling day itself, quite a large percentage of the people who are employed as casuals between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., stay on to help with the first stage of the scrutiny; that is, of course, the part of the scrutiny that has the highest profile, nationally. That's what everyone's watching, and usually. of course - I think in all cases - we get a result for the House of Reps that night. But there's a lot more counting to be done, of course, over the following weeks.

Now, a smaller number of people obviously is involved in the remainder of the count. For example, we have to wait for 13 days after polling day, until all postal votes are received. In a very close House of Representatives seat that can be crucial, of course, waiting for those last votes to come in.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Are these people permanent staff, or are you still using casual staff in the count after the election day?

TREVOR WILSON: There's a much smaller number of casual staff involved then. And the Senate scrutiny, of course, particularly in the larger States, is a very complex exercise in itself.

BRUCE WEBSTER: Rod Madew is in charge of the Electoral Commission's computer.

ROD MADEW: I guess that while the votes are coming in, initially my staff's sitting there with a cold sweat, waiting for the first votes to come in and see if there's anything happening. And once we start receiving counts, the tally board printer at the back of the tally board provides a print of the candidates and the votes.

And then a large number of staff are running around the tally board manually putting these figures up. It's an extremely high table, so the mechanics are rather complex. We have a bucket with a bull-dog clip on the end and we pull it up via that.

JENNY HUTCHISON: High technology?

ROD MADEW: It's very high tech, yes. The other thing is there's a reasonable demand on the computer, because as soon as the first votes appear on the tally board, there's a massive tapping away at the keyboards by journalists, and also we have this year 20 public VDUs, so you, as a member of the public, can go up and see how your favourite member's performing in that division. So there's a reasonable demand on it.

I must say that I am quite pleased that this year the election is in March. I recall in 1987 working in the dark and dreary cold mornings of Canberra during July at minus 4, minus 5 degrees. I think it will be a lot more pleasant out there this time, because the computers are wheeled in a couple of weeks before. They're sensitive souls, computers, and they need a reasonable amount of stabilisation for them to work correctly.

In terms of the computer on the night, it's mainly used to count the votes. After that, I guess the real work begins of counting votes again and doing the Senate scrutiny. And from that we produce an enormous amount of statistics, of which you've probably seen some of our publications. We print them on laser printers in the Commission, camera-ready copies, and they go the Government Printers, and then they're published for all and sundry to see. And I guess that's the end of the job, and then we start preparing for the next event.

BRUCE WEBSTER: What sorts of problems could bedevil the Australian Electoral Commission.

TREVOR WILSON: We wouldn't get through an election period without something going wrong somewhere. It's a matter of how big or how small it is, and how quickly we can move to put it right. Some strange things happen. A truck might take the wrong turning. There could be industrial trouble, perhaps. In the past I think this has sometimes caused us a few headaches, but we've always come through it. Obviously, we make sure that there is an extra supply of ballot papers at each point - more than we think will be needed. Occasionally there may be, in a suburban area, more of a rush on one polling place than on another, and we can then move equipment, staff, ballot papers, should that be necessary. But this really isn't a problem.

I was involved in November last year in helping run the first election in Namibia, and clearly, in a country like that, their first election for democracy for many years, I witnessed a number of problems of that area which were really quite hair-raising, where we would spend two days, virtually, on the two-way radio, pleading for more ballot papers to be sent to a particular area, and hoping that a helicopter would appear with them. No, in Australia we don't quite have those sorts of problems.

BRUCE WEBSTER: Trevor Wilson and Rod Madew from the Australian Electoral Commission.

Now to a veteran of the polling booths. Jack Ryan first went to help, unofficially, in a polling booth at the age of 12. He's established a dynasty of Ryans involved at election times in both Victoria and the ACT. Not surprisingly, he has a wealth of anecdotes. Here are two of Jack Ryan's favourites.

JACK RYAN: In the 50s I was running the St Josephs's polling booth in South Yarra at the time of the Labor split. The bitterness was very strong there. So we'd had a fairly rough day. I think we'd had the police there about five times, just quietening things down and providing a presence, until come 8 o'clock when I could see that something was going to happen. There were usually very few people around the polling booths, once it's closed - other than the workers, of course.

But I could see this crowd gathering, so I told the staff and organised them so that if anything happened, hopefully we could handle it. Well, it wasn't long before the front door was kicked down and a number of people came in - one with a claw hammer, I think - looking for me, who was the bloke in charge, demanding to be given a vote. They had had a few beers and were in good form. So, what could I do? I assured them that I'd be delighted to give them a vote, late and all as it was. After all, these things happen and you get involved, enthusiastic and that sort of thing. The only problem or difficulty was that I didn't have any unused ballot papers; but they were welcome, shall we say, to have a look around the booth, and if they could find any unused ballot papers, well, we'd process them. Won't you, gang? The team said: `Yes, yes, we're happy. We know it shouldn't be done, but ...'

Unfortunately, of course, no ballot papers could be found. I informed them that somebody from the division had come and collected all these unused ballot papers, hoping of course that they wouldn't have looked under the stage where we'd gathered all the unused papers and threw them, locked the doors, et cetera. So we broke up, quite understandingly. They withdrew and we managed to get the door up and settled down to counting votes and cleaning the place up and getting home.

In 1972, with the enthusiasm and the Labor movement, with its time, all the emblems, et cetera, in those days people coming in to vote were not to wear emblems, or if they had them on to take them off, and this requirement of cover-up or remove was a bit hard to enforce. I was running the Toorak polling booth. My number two came in in a hurry and said: well, I think we're going to have problems. We have a large number of young people starting to line up, and also the TV has cameras. So I said: well, what's the problem? She said: `Well, they're all wanting to vote absentee, claiming they won't be in their own division during the day, so naturally we've got to accommodate them'.

If we enforced the removal of the emblem, well, not only would the TV crew be very happy, but ... because if we started insisting, which I think some of the lasses would be happy to, remove their singlets, all would be bared. Some of them had their emblems on the trousers. So it was a case of, well, what can we do? So we virtually shut down the ordinary people - in other words let them queue - pulled the staff in and somewhat roughly we processed them all. And I think we were about eight minutes. Having voted, they had no right to intrude upon any other division, or any other polling booth rather, for the day.

BRUCE WEBSTER: Jack Ryan, veteran polling officer. By the way, if you're uncertain about how to avoid spoiling your ballot paper, listen in the Practicalities on Saturday morning, just after nine.