Voters who are blind or sight impaired have been able to vote remotely by telephone in federal elections since 2013 through a call centre service offered by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). Around 2,000 votes were taken this way at each of the last two federal elections. In 2020 electoral legislation was changed to allow Australian voters in Antarctica to also use telephone voting.
In 2022, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government again amended the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (CEA) to allow for telephone voting for ‘coronavirus affected individuals’.
Telephone voting will only be available to coronavirus affected voters who are required to isolate or quarantine and are prevented from attending a polling place from 6pm on Wednesday 18 May through to the end of election day. Prior to this, anyone required to isolate can apply for a postal ballot (CEA subsection 184(5)).
The operation of telephone voting for coronavirus affected voters is defined by delegated legislation, the Commonwealth Electoral (COVID Enfranchisement) Regulations 2022 (The Regulations). The Electoral Commissioner will also issue directions prior to the election clarifying some details.
A somewhat simplified version of the process, according to the Regulations, is:
- An affected voter must register by providing their name, address, date of birth, phone number and evidence of being a coronavirus affected voter. The voter must declare that they have not already voted in the election and that they have been required to self-isolate or quarantine due to COVID-19. The voter is provided with a registration number and must register a personal identification number (PIN) of their choosing.
- The voter must call the call centre when telephone voting ‘is available for the individual’. Following the appropriate security checks, the call centre operator must mark the ballot paper in accordance with the voter’s instructions, and have them confirmed.
- The Regulations require that a representation of the ballot paper be made available to the voter on the AEC’s website. Alternatively, the call centre operator must read out the ballot paper to the voter. A scrutineer must be able to listen to the call, with the voter’s knowledge.
- The ballot is then placed in an envelope with the voter’s electorate, registration number, and the time and date on which the vote was cast. The voter’s name is never put on the envelope or given to the phone operator, ensuring a secret ballot.
- After the close of polls, the envelopes are sorted and forwarded to the appropriate division to be counted, four days after polling day. The roll is checked by matching the registration number and if the voter has not already voted the envelope is opened and the vote is placed in a ballot box to be counted like a normal vote (it will technically be recorded as a pre-poll ordinary vote).
The results of the telephone votes are published as a separate vote collection point, effectively counted as their own polling place (which is currently also the case for telephone votes for blind and low vision voters).
In a Senate Estimates committee hearing in February 2022 the Electoral Commissioner cautioned that telephone voting was an emergency provision set up at the last minute and would likely not be without problems:
… that solution is absolutely designed as an emergency measure for a very small number of people, and I want to be on the record with that as well. If people think that's going to become an alternative channel for voting and they just phone up and that's going to be great—it's not. The other thing I can guarantee you, Senator, is that it will be a lumpy experience for those who have to use it. We've never done it before. It's a new measure that we're putting in place. It is absolutely designed to cater for that very narrow group. … [T]elephone voting is brand new. It's something we're doing for this pandemic. It will not be smooth—I give you a gilt-edged guarantee of that—because it's an emergency measure. So, I urge people to think about that.
It seems likely that the AEC’s main concern is the ability to scale phone voting to the level required. While in a subsequent Estimates hearing the Electoral Commissioner stated that their modelling indicated that it would not be hundreds of thousands of people who would be eligible, a hard cap on the number of people who can access the service is likely, due to the number of call centre operators available.
The Parliamentary Library estimates that up to around 80,000 voters might be eligible for telephone voting for the three days in which it is available (assuming it only applies to new cases recorded during the period, and not to close contacts). This estimate is based on the number of new cases over an equivalent recent three days, taking account of the proportion of new cases who are adults and the proportion of Australian adults eligible to vote. It does not take into account people who might have already voted early in some other way.
At the December 2021 New South Wales local government elections, the remote internet voting solution, iVote, failed under the weight of the demand, resulting in three of the elections being voided by the courts. The Regulations appear to have anticipated similar issues, providing in subsection 7(4):
Any failure to provide a telephone voting method in accordance with this Part does not invalidate the result of a general election, Senate election or by‑election.