Australian Electoral Commission officials allowed 75 voters at a northern suburbs retirement home to cast their ballots for WA's $20 million Senate re-run election into a faultily constructed ballot box because they were pressed for time.
The AEC declared the votes invalid yesterday and will allow the voters to cast new ballots but refused to say whether the legal advice on which it based its decision could be challenged.
The AEC said a mobile polling team at the RAAFA Estate retirement home in Merriwa identified a problem with the construction of the ballot box in its possession on Monday and tried to apply a "temporary solution" that was not fully secure.
Asked why it allowed votes to be cast into an improperly constructed ballot box, an AEC spokesman said: "The mobile team in attendance was motivated to provide voter services at the scheduled time to the elderly residents at RAAFA Estate.
"Once finding that the mobile ballot box was defective and missing a component to enable it to be sealed, the mobile team believed it could proceed by improvising a container to receive the completed ballots.
"These were then transferred to the defective AEC ballot box which was closed."
The spokesman said the 75 votes were not mixed with valid votes.
The bungle has cast a cloud over the Senate by-election that was ordered by the High Court after the AEC lost 1375 votes when it tried to re-count the original September poll.
"This is bordering on farcical," Labor leader Bill Shorten said. "I am concerned that this will impact on people turning out to vote."
The Liberal Party, which apparently alerted the AEC to the error - though the AEC refused to confirm this yesterday - said that if the error happened again tomorrow, it could not be similarly remedied because the polls would be closed by 6pm.
"We are in this mess because political deals between micro-parties, coupled with the incompetence of the AEC, has forced West Australians back to vote," Liberal senator Dean Smith said. "We didn't want this mess."
Palmer United Party leader Clive Palmer left the door open to challenging the result if his No. 1 candidate Dio Wang did not win and the margin was tight.
"Our party is participating in an election which we now know there is evidence it has been tainted," he said.