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How votes are counted in a local government election

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Once you have voted and placed your ballot papers in the ballot box they remain untouched until voting closes at 6pm on election day. The ballot boxes are then opened and the ballot papers sorted and counted. A series of counts are undertaken before the final results are declared.

Candidates can appoint scrutineers to observe the counting of ballot papers. Scrutineers observe the voting and counting of votes to verify that the election is carried out in a proper manner.

The following counts are carried out at in local government elections.

Initial counts

After the close of voting on election night, polling place managers and the returning officer will endeavour to complete the following initial counts for polling places and pre-polls (but not for declaration votes):

  • Initial count of ballot papers for mayor (where applicable), sorting and counting the ballot papers according to the first preference for each candidate and

  • initial count of ballot papers for all councillor positions, sorting and counting the ballot papers according to the first preference for each candidate, and where applicable, the first preference votes for each group marked in its group voting square.

In the week following election day, the returning officer will complete:

  • any initial counts that weren’t completed by the end of election night

  • the initial count of declaration votes (which includes postal votes)

  • the initial count of all referendum ballot papers (where applicable) and

  • the initial count of all poll ballot papers (where applicable).

Check counts

In the week(s) following election day, ballot papers will undergo a second count. This is referred to as a check count. The check count is the official count to determine the elected candidates.

For both mayor and councillor, preferences from the ballot papers are data entered into the NSW Electoral Commission’s computer count system. This system will determine the formality of each ballot paper based on the preferences entered.

For by-elections, when there is one vacancy to be filled, the check count may be conducted manually.

For referendums and polls, a check count will only be undertaken if neither the “Yes” nor the “No” tally equals or exceeds 60 per cent of the total formal vote.

Distribution of preferences

For both mayor and councillor the distribution of preferences is performed by the computer count system to determine the elected candidate(s). The method used to distribute preferences depends on the nature of the election.

For by-elections, when there is one vacancy to be filled, the Distribution of preferences may be conducted manually.

Distribution of preferences explanation - optional preferential system

The optional preferential system is described in Schedule 4 of the Local Government (General) Regulation 2021.

The optional preferential voting system requires a candidate to receive more than 50 per cent of the non-informal, non-exhausted ballot papers. This is called the absolute majority of votes.

If a candidate is not elected after the count of first preferences, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is excluded - each ballot paper is distributed to the candidates remaining in the count according to the next highest preference. If there is none, the ballot paper is set aside as exhausted.

After the distribution of ballot papers, if a candidate has an absolute majority, that candidate is declared elected. If there is still no candidate with an absolute majority, the next continuing candidate with the lowest number of ballot papers has their unexhausted ballot papers distributed as before. This process repeats until a candidate is elected with an absolute majority.


If there are 8,756 formal first preference votes in an election the absolute majority is calculated as: 8,756 ÷ 2 = 4,378 + 1 = 4,379.

If a candidate has an absolute majority, that candidate is elected.

If no candidate is elected, the candidate with the least number of votes is ‘excluded’ which means the excluded candidate’s votes are re-sorted to the other candidates remaining in the count according to the second preference shown on each ballot paper.

However, if any of those ballot papers do not have a second preference, or have two or more second preferences on them, those ballot papers are known as ‘exhausted’ ballot papers and are removed from the count. They are then only used to balance the number of votes at the end of each exclusion, to the number of first preference votes.

The absolute majority is recalculated after every candidate is excluded. The absolute majority reduces after each exclusion due to the exhausted ballot papers not continuing in the count.

The process of exclusions continues until a candidate is elected. The ballot papers of excluded candidates are re-sorted to the second, third, fourth etc. preferences as applicable, until such time as a candidate has an absolute majority of the votes remaining in the count and that candidate is elected.

The process is explained in the following example:


First preference votes

Candidate D excluded

Progressive totals

Candidate C excluded

Progressive totals

Candidate A






Candidate B





4,182 Elected

Candidate C






Candidate D






Total formal votes


















Total votes






Absolute majority






Distribution of preferences explanation - proportional representation system

The proportional representation system is described in Schedule 5 of the Local Government (General) Regulation 2021.

In a proportional voting system, a candidate is elected if they receive votes equal to or exceeding the quota. The quota is determined by first dividing the aggregate number of first preferences by one more than the number of candidates to be elected. The quotient (disregarding the fraction) is increased by 1 to give the quota. After the count of first preferences is complete, each candidate who has reached quota is elected.

Where an elected candidate has a surplus of ballot papers over the quota, this surplus is transferred to the continuing candidates (i.e. those not yet elected or excluded). If multiple candidates are elected, each candidate’s surplus is transferred (one at a time) to the continuing candidates, from the highest surplus to the lowest.

To transfer a surplus, all the ballot papers received by the elected candidate are sorted to their next preferred continuing candidate. Each ballot paper is then worth a portion of that surplus. This portion is called the transfer value. Example: if an elected candidate had 100 ballot papers and their surplus was 10 votes, then each ballot paper would be worth 0.1 of a vote. A continuing candidate receiving 20 of these ballot papers would therefore receive 2 of the 10 surplus votes.

 After each transfer of ballot papers (and their associated votes), if any more candidates have reached quota, they are elected and added to the queue of surpluses to be transferred. This transfer of surpluses continues (one at a time) until all have been transferred. 

Then, if vacancies remain, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is excluded. All the ballot papers received by this candidate, including those received from surplus transfers, are sorted to the continuing candidates according to their next available preference.

This process continues with candidates being

  • elected when their votes equal or exceed quota, with their surplus distributed as above or

  • excluded, with their ballot papers distributed as above

until either:

  • no vacancies remain to be filled or

  • the number of remaining candidates equals the number of remaining vacancies or

  • all remaining vacancies can be filled by candidates whose total votes cannot be overtaken by the remaining candidates in the count.

In these circumstances, the elected candidates are elected despite not reaching the quota.


This example Distribution of Preferences Detailed Report (PDF 0.6MB) and count spreadsheet (PDF 0.2MB) shows how ballot papers are distributed under the proportional representation system, showing a count of first preferences, a surplus transfer, and an exclusion transfer.


Recounts will only/may occur if:

  • requested by a candidate in writing and the Electoral Commissioner believes it is necessary, or

  • directed by the Electoral Commissioner.

Any request for a recount must:

  • be in writing, and

  • be signed by the candidate, and

  • set out the reasons for the request, and

  • be lodged with the Returning Officer within 24 hours of the results being published on the NSW Electoral Commission’s website.

The reasons for the request should identify the specific error or other irregularity about the counting process that it is alleged could potentially impact the results of the election.

The best way to lodge a recount request is by email to:

• the NSW Electoral Commission at candidates@elections.nsw.gov.au, and

• the Returning Officer 

Candidates are not required to pay the cost of the recount, if conducted.

The Electoral Commissioner will consider the request, including the reasons provided, and will determine whether and, if so how, any recount is to be conducted by the Returning Officer.

For example, depending on the circumstances of the recount, the Commissioner may determine that all or only some of the ballot papers are to be recounted.

Declaration of the election

When all the votes have been counted, the returning officer declares the election in writing, which is an official announcement of the election result. The date of the declaration varies from council to council and depends on the time it takes to count the votes. The declaration will be displayed at the office of the relevant council and the election result published on this website. 

Challenges to election results

Any person may apply to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) for an order to have a person dismissed from civic office. The NCAT may exercise its power to dismiss a person from civic office if it finds that there has been an ‘irregularity’ in the election of a person.