Many Australians expected to be in isolation, with AEC staff prevented from accessing hospitals and some aged care facilities

Voters in Wentworth during the last Australian federal election. Phone-in voting will be expanded to accommodate people isolating with Covid. Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

Phone-in voting will be expanded to accommodate people isolating with Covid but the Australian Electoral Commission is warning the process “won’t be smooth”, as surging coronavirus case numbers complicate polling plans on the eve of the federal election.

Large numbers of Australians are expected to be in isolation come election day, with the pandemic also preventing AEC staff accessing hospitals and some aged care facilities.

The AEC says postal votes can be applied for until the Wednesday before polling day. But for those who either contract Covid or who are deemed close contacts between the Wednesday and election day, the situation is more complex.

Legislation was recently passed to allow the AEC to expand its phone-in voting service, traditionally used for blind or low-vision Australians, to take votes from positive Covid cases.

That service took just 2,000 votes last election. With Covid case numbers surging throughout Australia, its capacity will need to increase significantly to deal with those isolating this year.

AEC media director Evan Ekin-Smyth said there was “no golden number” on how many Covid positive cases are expected to need the service.

Those who test positive will likely be asked to fill out a self-declaration confirming their Covid status, though they may need to provide proof. Australians without Covid should not assume they can use phone voting, or that it will be easier than turning up to a polling place, Ekin-Smyth said.

“I think the thing to say here as well is that it won’t be smooth,” he said. “This is an emergency provision, we’ve only just had legislation change for this.

“We’re scaling up what was otherwise a small service. So if people are thinking that they’re going to use this service because ‘hey, I want to do it on the phone instead of turning up in person’, that is not what it’s about. You’ll wait longer on the phone than you will at a polling place.”

Voters who call in will be first asked to register, marked off the roll, and then given a code. On a separate call, they will use that code to vote.

“The idea being that it maintains the fact that you get an anonymous, secret vote,” Ekin-Smyth said.

The AEC is working with state and territories to send text messages to positive Covid cases, informing them of the need to either postal vote prior to the Wednesday in election week, or use the phone-in service if they test positive after Wednesday.

The AEC is still determining which states and territories will allow Covid close contacts exemptions from their isolation to vote in person, should they record a negative rapid test.

For those who do attend the polling place in person, Covid precautions will be in force, including social distancing and hand sanitiser, and staff will be wearing masks.

Additional staff will be employed, including queue controllers and hygiene officers.

The process of voting itself will also be as Covid-safe as possible. The usual order of pencils has increased from 100,000 to 4.5m. Each pencil will be sanitised between use.

Polling booths will be wiped down and new plastic inserts will be used to place ballot papers on.

“In each voting screen, which is the surface you put your ballot paper down on, we’ll have little plastic inserts,” Ekin-Smyth said. “So once a voter leaves, that plastic insert will get sprayed and wiped before the next voter comes down.”

Ekin-Smyth says the AEC is expecting an increase in postal voting, and already had plans to increase capacity well before the pandemic.

But he said the surge in postal voting might not be “quite as significant as some people expect”.

Hospitals will be off-limits to mobile AEC teams, as will some aged care facilities.

“Some [aged care facilities] we’ll be doing mobile, some we won’t,” he said. “We’re contacting individual places to see if they’re set up for it and comfortable having us there, and if they’re not, we’re supporting them for postal voting.”