Scrutineers Handbook: About this handbook

Updated: 20 May 2016

Thank you for assisting with Australia's electoral process by acting as a scrutineer. You are doing an extremely important job in ensuring that Australia's proud democratic tradition of transparent elections is maintained. Transparency and integrity in the conduct of elections have, after all, been the hallmarks of Australia's federal electoral system.

As a scrutineer, you need a clear understanding of your role, including what you can and cannot do under the law. This handbook is designed to help you, before, during and after election day, to be as effective as possible as a scrutineer. Remember, you can play a significant part in helping to ensure, as far as possible, that every vote cast in an election counts.

What does a scrutineer do?

Candidates are not allowed to enter polling places, except in order to vote. They are also not permitted to observe the counting of votes (the scrutiny) for elections in which they are candidates. They have the right, however, to appoint scrutineers to represent them during the polling and throughout the various stages of counting ballot papers. For a referendum, scrutineers can be appointed by the Governor-General, the Governor of a State, the Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory, the Administrator of the Northern Territory, and registered officers of a registered political party.

As a scrutineer, you have the right to be present when the ballot boxes are sealed, when they are opened, when votes are being issued, and when the votes are sorted and counted so you may confirm the integrity of election processes on behalf of the candidate who has appointed you.

On behalf of candidates, scrutineers may observe:

  • the polling,
  • the counting of ballot papers (the scrutiny),
  • the preliminary scrutiny of declaration envelopes,
  • the further scrutiny of declaration votes,
  • the fresh scrutiny of House of Representatives votes,
  • the Divisional Returning Officer Senate count, and
  • the Australian Electoral Officer scrutiny of Senate ballot papers.

How do I become a scrutineer?

A candidate appoints you by completing a scrutineer appointment form, which can be obtained from any Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) office or the AEC website. The candidate must sign the form and give the name and address of the scrutineer.

You must then sign the undertaking on the form stating you will not attempt to influence the vote of an elector and that you will not disclose any knowledge you may acquire concerning any elector's vote.

The form may be provided in person to the relevant DRO or officer in charge of a polling place, or by fax if such facilities are available.

The Scrutineers Handbook

This handbook is published by the AEC, the Commonwealth agency that maintains the electoral roll and conducts federal elections, by-elections and referendums. The handbook covers the stages for the electoral process relevant to a scrutineer.

Each chapter in the handbook lists the parts of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (the Act) detailing how the electoral law applies to scrutineers.

The AEC advises that you also consult the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (the Constitution), the Act, and other legislation including the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 referred to for the exact provisions.

The AEC can help you by providing information of a general nature about the role and duties of a scrutineer. However, it cannot provide you with formal or informal legal advice.

Legislative provisions appear in this handbook in a paraphrased form only, unless otherwise indicated. Scrutineers must satisfy themselves about their own legal position and, if necessary, refer to the exact provisions of the Constitution and the Act and consult their own lawyers.

You can access this handbook, the Constitution and the Act on the AEC website.

Abbreviations and acronyms have been kept to a minimum. Seven acronyms are used throughout the handbook:

  • AEC – Australian Electoral Commission
  • AEO – Australian Electoral Officer
  • ARO – Assistant Returning Officer
  • DRO – Divisional Returning Officer
  • the Act – Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918
  • HoR – House of Representatives
  • CSS – Central Senate Scrutiny

The words 'voter' and 'elector' are used interchangeably.

At the end of this handbook you will find a glossary that explains terms that may be unfamiliar to you.

How the handbook can help you

The handbook explains what you will do as a scrutineer, and how to comply with the law during the election and throughout the vote counting process.

Offences relating to elections are listed in Appendix 1. Some electoral offences apply at all times, while others apply during the specific election period.

As information can change during the life of a publication, the AEC website is the best source of up-to-date information.

AEC National, State, Territory and Divisional Office contact details

You will find office contact details on the AEC website.

Feedback welcome

The AEC welcomes your views on the usefulness of the Scrutineers Handbook and any specific information provided in these pages. We invite you to provide feedback.

The AEC also publishes Electoral Backgrounders on specific aspects of electoral law. Copies of these AEC publications can be accessed by visiting the AEC website or phoning 13 23 26.

What's new at this election?

Changes to Senate voting that will apply at this election

The Parliament has recently passed changes to the voting method for electing Senators.

The changes impact on how voters complete their Senate ballot paper and how the Senate ballot papers are counted.

Voters will still be able to choose to vote above or below the line, however the number of boxes voters are required to complete has changed.

Voting above the line (ATL):

  • Voters must number at least six boxes from 1 to 6.
  • By voting above the line, the voter's preferences will be distributed in the order that the candidates appear below the line for the party or group they have chosen. Preferences will first be distributed to the candidates in the party or group of the voter's first choice then to the candidates in the party or group of the voter's second choice and so on until all the voter's preferences have been distributed.

Voting below the line (BTL):

  • Voters must number at least twelve boxes from 1 to 12.
  • By voting below the line, voter's preferences will be distributed to the individual candidates as numbered on the ballot paper in the order of the voter's choice.

Counting of Senate votes

The counting of Senate votes will also be different.

As a result of the recent changes passed by the Parliament, the scrutiny of Senate votes will be carried out by the AEO at the Central Senate Scrutiny (CSS) centre in each State or Territory.

On polling night, at each polling place, the ARO is required to count the total number of Senate ballot papers and the number of first preferences ATL. It is AEC policy for the ARO to also count the number of first preferences BTL for each group and ungrouped candidate and to also count the obviously informal ballot papers.

After polling day, the DRO repeats the count process undertaken by the ARO before forwarding the ballot papers to the CSS.

This means that while ballot papers where a first preference cannot be determined will be separated from those where it can, it is only the AEO who determines formality. The AEO will be assisted in determining formality by a computerised scrutiny process.

Scrutineers have the opportunity to object to the formality of a Senate ballot paper at the CSS.

Political party logos

HoR and Senate ballot papers will look different at this election. Political parties that have registered a logo with the AEC before the issue of writs for the election can request to have their party logo printed on the ballot papers. The inclusion of a party logo is intended to reduce the confusion that may arise where political parties have similar names.

Handling of declaration votes

A further change arising from the recent Senate reforms relates to the handling of declaration votes.

Declaration vote ballot boxes will no longer be opened at polling locations. Instead they will remain sealed and transported to a divisional outpost where they will be stored securely until they can then be opened, fully reconciled and the declaration vote envelopes within forwarded to the relevant DRO for processing.

Timing of the election

Federal elections

Constitutional and legislative frameworks that govern Australian federal elections determine both the election timetable and electoral processes.

Both Houses of Parliament have separate provisions reflecting their different constitutional roles. A House of Representatives term expires three years from its first official meeting but can be dissolved earlier. Once the term expires or is dissolved, the Governor-General will issue the writs for an election.

The Senate is a continuing body with Senators for each state elected for a six year term. A rotation system ensures half the senate is retired or up for election every three years. The two senators each representing the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory are elected concurrently with the members of the House of Representatives and the duration of their terms of office coincide with those for the House of Representatives.

Usually, the House of Representatives and the half Senate elections are held at the same time. However, the Governor-General may dissolve both Houses simultaneously upon certain conditions having been met under section 57 of the Constitution, resulting in a general election for the House of Representatives and all of the Senate. This is known as a double dissolution.

The key dates in the election timetable are available on the AEC website.


Whenever a vacancy occurs in the House of Representatives because of the death, resignation, absence without leave, expulsion, disqualification or ineligibility of a Member, a writ may be issued by the Speaker for the election of a new Member. A writ may also be issued when the Court of Disputed Returns declares an election void.

The guiding principle in fixing the date of a by-election has always been to hold the election as early as possible so that the electors are not left without representation any longer than is necessary.


The Constitution may only be altered with the approval of the Australian electorate. Any proposed laws to amend the Constitution must be submitted to the direct vote of the entire electorate in a referendum. Any alteration to the Constitution must be approved by a 'double majority', a national majority of electors, and a majority of electors in a majority of the states.

A referendum must be held no sooner than two and no later than six months after the proposal is passed by Parliament. The date set for the close of rolls is seven days after the issue of the writ, and voting day must be on a Saturday.

Do's and Don'ts

Whenever you are acting in the role of scrutineer, you must wear the Identification Badge the AEC supplied to you.

When taking on your role as a scrutineer, you may:

  • observe all voting procedures – except the elector actually voting, unless the elector has requested assistance (see 'Assisted voting' for more information),
  • object to the right of any person to vote,
  • be nominated by an elector to assist with the completion of a ballot paper,
  • enter and leave the polling place at any time during voting,
  • enter and leave the polling place at any time during the counts (your place may be taken by another appointed scrutineer), and
  • inspect, but not touch, any ballot paper at the count.

You must not:

  • stay in a polling place unless you have provided a completed appointment form,
  • go into a polling place without your scrutineer's badge,
  • help with clearing voting booths or the removal of material from the polling place,
  • touch ballot papers,
  • interfere with a voter, or attempt to influence them,
  • reveal anything you know about how someone has voted,
  • wear a badge or emblem of a political party or candidate within the polling place,
  • deliberately show or leave in the polling place any how-to-vote card or similar direction as to how an elector should vote,
  • use an image recording device (such as a camera, a video recorder, or a camera or video-enabled mobile phone) in a polling place or counting centre, and
  • unreasonably delay or interfere with the progress of counting the votes.