Live coverage of the count for the Wentworth by-election.
Live publication of results, updated by the minute with full booth results and swings, can be found here. Commentary of the progress of the count follows below.
Today’s counting consisted of finishing off the rechecking of ordinary votes. It appears 54 votes in the Paddington PPVC were reassigned from Sharma to Phelps; other than that, the effect was to cut 209 votes from Sharma’s total and 234 from Phelps’s. So evidently a lot of the action on rechecking has consisted of ruling informal votes that were initially admitted to the count. The upshot is that little has changed since yesterday, except that the window seems to have closed on a major anomaly being identified in rechecking, which was Sharma’s best hope. I had a fairly extensive look at the progress of the count in a paywalled article in Crikey today.
Today’s events as they unfolded:
• Anxieties in the pro-Phelps/anti-Liberal camp that set in as the largest pre-poll voting centres recorded their votes late last night cranked up a notch in the morning as the first and biggest batch of postals were added to the count. These broke 3356-1858 in favour of Sharma (later revised to 3346-1851), his 64.4% share being fractionally more than he would likely need to rein in what remained of Phelps’s lead. Not long after, Antony Green wrote on Twitter: “No (Phelps) is not home. The difference between on the day voting and voting in advance is wider than I’ve ever seen at an election. In conversation with very senior party people today, they have the same opinion.”
• Around 10:30am or so, Sharma got a further small boost when the two Special Hospital Team booths were added to the total, collectively breaking his way by 266-54.
• After that though, the pendulum swung back. The AEC set to work on the routine recheck of the ordinary votes, starting with those booths where the preferences flows recorded yesterday appeared to be anomalous, as was keenly observed by Kevin Bonham. This confirmed that Phelps had indeed been short-changed in the Bondi Beach and Bellevue Hill booths – because, according to Antony Green, the preferences from primary votes for the Liberal candidate had been entered the wrong way around. As a result, Phelps’ 2132-1714 lead in Bondi Beach blew out to 2427-1330, and Sharma’s purported 1305-985 lead in Bellevue Hill turned out to be only 1152-1119. About half the booths have had their votes rechecked to this point, the net effect of the others being neutral.
• Then a second batch of postals went 698-467 to Sharma, or 59.9% to 40.1% – less than he would have needed even before the rechecking raised the bar.
The main votes yet to be counted are late-arriving postals – I see no reason to doubt my earlier judgement that the final number of postals will be very close to the 9392 that were cast in 2016, since the number of applications received was almost identical. That leaves maybe 3000 postals outstanding, along with provisionals and pre-poll declaration votes, of which a high-end estimate would be about 500. This leaves Sharma with about 3500 votes outstanding with which to close a gap of 1616, meaning he will need about 73%.
That’s not going to happen, so it will take the emergence of another error in what remains of the rechecking to make a Sharma victory plausible. Precedents do exist, such as the decisive 1000 votes that showed up for Cathy McGowan as she grappled with Sophie Mirabella in Indi in 2013. But if the remainder of the count proceeds normally, Sharma only seems likely to reel his existing deficit in by around 700 votes, giving Phelps a winning margin of around 900 votes, or 0.6%.
To cut the following long story short: this isn’t over.
Those who were still paying attention at the close of last night’s action were thrown into a spin when Dave Sharma did remarkably well out of the pre-poll voting centres, which these days account for many thousands of votes and do not report their results into well into the evening. In particular, the 6431 votes of the Rose Bay PPVC broke 4473-1958, which slashed Phelps’ lead from 4.2% to 1.9% – creating just the slightest opportunity for Sharma to pull a rabbit out of the hat on postals.
In the last of my updates in the section below, I calculated that Sharma would need 70% of postals to close the gap, but it seems this was an overestimate. The number of postal votes issued at this by-election has been almost identical to that in 2016 (12860 compared with 12796), so it’s a very safe bet the number of formal postal votes will be around the same, namely 9329. We can also expect 500 or so provisional and pre-poll declaration votes, but it’s the postal votes that are most interesting because they skew conservative. Malcolm Turnbull did around 9.5% better with postals in 2016 as compared with ordinary votes, on both the primary and two-party preferred vote.
If that bears out this time, Sharma can expect to reduce his present deficit of 2590 votes by around 1400. However, it’s not impossible that he will do significantly better than that. Given the trend of polling and the general course of political events over the past week or two, it could be surmised he would do relatively well on votes that were cast earlier in the process. Kevin Bonham points out that the Mayo by-election is particularly auspicious for the Liberals in that Rebekha Sharkie gained a 3.5% two-party swing on ordinary votes against the Liberals, but there was actually a 5.1% swing in the Liberals’ favour on postals. No doubt this was unusual, but it does demonstrate that it would not be without precedent for postals to weigh towards Sharma heavily enough to sneak him over the line.
However, some objections have been noted to the results as currently published:
• The Rose Bay PPVC is an extreme outlier in having a primary vote swing of only 1.9% against the Liberals, where in every other booth it was in double digits (not counting the 16 votes cast through the blind or low vision telephone voting service), and this is not reflected in any unusual movement in the Labor primary vote. However, this very likely reflects the fact that the Rose Bay PPVC wasn’t in use at the 2016 election, and the “historic” vote totals provided by the AEC to facilitate booth-matched swing calculations (including those featured in my own results facility) were well off the mark. Specifically, the “historic” totals only account for 1459 formal votes, of which 983 were credited to the Liberals, compared with the 6431 that actually appear to have been cast. As such, I see no reason not to think Sharma was indeed being undersold in early assessments of the count, as it was not appreciated how much of the harbourside vote was locked up in the Rose Bay PPVC, waiting to be unleashed at the very end of the night.
• Probably more substantively, Kevin Bonham has identified curiously weak preference flows for Phelps at Bondi Beach and Bellevue Hill. These would be consistent with 450 votes that properly belong to Phelps having been wrongly placed in Sharma’s pile. If the imminent rechecking of votes indeed proves this to be so, the hill would look just that little bit too high for Sharma to claim. But as Bonham also notes, there could just as easily be other inconsistencies awaiting discovery that could tip the balance the other way.
Midnight. The last pre-poll voting centres tightened things up quite a lot – not quite enough for Sharma, but there won’t be much in it in the end. Phelps ends the night with a 1.9% lead, which would leave Sharma needing a more-than-plausible 70% or so of postals.
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