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Reform pushed to speed up vote counting

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South Australian Electoral Commissioner Kay Mousley will propose legislative change to speed up the counting of early and absentee votes in future elections.

Mousley has copped some criticism this week for the painstaking progress in the count, which is due to the huge number of postal, early and absentee votes cast in Saturday’s election.

She told InDaily today that these categories of votes – known as “declaration” votes – required time-consuming checking before the count could continue.

As the election result hangs in balance, Mousley says will be no new counting in most seats today – just examination of details to ensure the votes have been validly cast and the opening of declaration vote envelopes.

[There has been some counting in the key marginal seats of Colton and Light – see below.]

Mousley said she would propose changes to the Parliament so that early and absentee votes (those cast outside an elector’s home seat) would be considered ordinary votes. This would mean that counting could begin as soon as the polling booths close.

This year there were more than 320,000 declaration votes cast – nearly one third of the total electorate.

The large bulk of these – 180,000 of them – are absentee votes cast by people who attended booths away from their home electorate. Of these, 3000 are from electors living overseas or interstate.

With early voting booths opening more than two weeks before election day, 78,000 South Australians chose to cast their vote in person before the end of the campaign.

An additional 88,000 postal voting forms were distributed, although the Electoral Commission expects only 66,000 of those votes to be returned.

Mousley said she would propose changes to the Electoral Act so that absentee votes and those cast at early voting centres could be considered as normal votes.

“We wouldn’t have to do all this cross-checking,” she said.

“It wouldn’t involve the time consuming process that we have to do with declaration votes.”

Instead, those checks would be undertaken at the time of the person’s vote at an early or regular polling booth.

Mousley pointed to interstate practice, in Sydney for example, where the Town Hall serves as a central point for voters from any electorate. Lower House ballot papers are printed on the spot, on demand, and the ensuing votes are considered as “ordinary” – allowing them to be counted on election night or the day after.

She said she wasn’t concerned about an increased potential for electoral fraud, but added that “we would have to make sure we had good processes in place”.

Mousley has previously told InDaily that she favours the introduction of computer voting.

However, today she flagged potential resource issues.

“I’ve recently increased my IT staff – from one to two,” she said.

“This is the problem – we have a very small staff base and we are limited in what we can do.”

She also said late changes to electoral laws, passed by Parliament in its final sittings last year, had caused her office some grief in the lead-up to the election.

“That definitely didn’t help our position – waiting for the nomination fee (to be confirmed). It was a very difficult situation for the office.”

Meanwhile, both major parties are focusing on the crucial marginal seat of Colton, held by former Labor minister Paul Caica. Labor scrutineers say counting today of pre-poll and absentee votes shows the numbers breaking almost even, or slightly in Caica’s favour.

The result has eased Labor’s fears for the seat. Caica’s lead was whittled down to 440 yesterday after postals heavily favoured the Liberals. If the rest of the declaration votes were to go that way in the same proportions, the seat would be lost. Given the trends in other marginals, the pick-up of Colton would probably give Steven Marshall’s Liberals a 23-22 seat lead.

Counting also took place in Light, held by Labor’s Tony Piccolo. Labor’s scrutineers say he has increased his lead slightly.

The large number of declaration votes is new territory for the parties in South Australia, and no-one is certain how they will play out.

It is likely the electorate will have to wait until Sunday, at the earliest, to learn the outcome of all the marginal seats.

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