Annual Report 2013–14

Case study

Farewell to the National Tally Room

photo of 2010 tallyboard

It was the backdrop for some of the most important events in Australian political history but in 2013 technology finally caught up with the National Tally Room.

The National Tally Room was a uniquely Australian institution, born in the mid-20th century, when state and national electoral authorities began using telephones to capture election results in a central location.

By the late 1960s, the National Tally Room in Canberra was where the public, the media and candidates of all political hues gathered to hear official federal election results as they were phoned in from across the country. A central feature was the wooden tally board – two storeys high – displaying results for each electoral division.

In the years that followed, the tally room continued to grow until it became the election night home to more than 300 press, television and radio journalists, four purpose-built television studios as well as 400 presenters, operators and computer staff, 100 political party workers, and a host of AEC staff. With visitors constantly coming and going, including well-known politicians, the room made a dynamic visual backdrop for media coverage of election night.

It was the introduction of computerised election results in 1974 that marked the first, albeit tiny, step in a long path that ultimately led to the tally room’s demise. As technology became more sophisticated, media still gathered in the tally room on election night, but they now relied on the AEC’s computer system for results rather than the tally board. Finally the advent of the Internet allowed the AEC to provide results directly to anyone with a computer and a web connection, regardless of their location.

Though it was no longer relevant to collating and relaying results, for some time the tally room continued to serve as a focal point for media coverage of federal elections. In 2013, however, all major media outlets announced they would not be attending the tally room on election night. With no media presence, the AEC could no longer justify the $1.2 million staging costs and announced that the National Tally Room would be retired.

photo of 1958 tallyboard

Though the colour and the movement of the tally room is gone, its role of providing centrally coordinated official election results lives on through the AEC’s Virtual Tally Room, available from the AEC website. In 2013, the Virtual Tally Room became live just before 6pm AEDT on election day and delivered uninterrupted, real-time election information and results throughout election night and the days that followed. The Virtual Tally Room received approximately 200 000 visitors on election night and information from the tally room was used extensively by media organisations to analyse and present election results from media studios around the country.

In recognition of the role played by the National Tally Room, the AEC donated the historic tally board to the Museum of Australian Democracy so that future generations will be able appreciate a little of the colour and flavour of what was once an iconic institution in Australia’s electoral history.