Chapter 3 Electronic voting in the Chamber
‘Divisions are an important facet of the parliamentary day—a time when
the policy divide is most evident.’ With this statement the
Clerk of the House of Representatives highlighted the essence of divisions. They
encapsulate the very public nature of decision-making by those who are elected
to the House in our system of government. This perspective is the foundation
for what the Clerk characterises as the ‘paramount’ issue with any voting
system: the integrity of the votes.
The Clerk’s submission canvassed the principal issues, including
procedural issues, and the potential benefits and disadvantages of electronic
voting. He also noted the long history of consideration of electronic voting in
the Chamber of the House and stated that the design and construction of
Parliament House provided for installation of such a system in the future.
The Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS) stated that
there appears to be no difficulty implementing an electronic voting system in
the House of Representatives Chamber from a technological perspective. However technological
issues were not canvassed in any detail in the submission. The Secretary
referred to the major limitation not being technological capability, rather,
the willingness to break from tradition.
This chapter deals with the procedural and contextual issues that may affect
the process of divisions and the traditional operation of the House and briefly
identifies additional topics that will need further consideration in any future
inquiry: cost and design and heritage concerns.
Procedural and contextual issues
Procedural and contextual considerations include:
n the importance of visibility
in the way Members vote;
n the provision of a
‘cooling off’ period in the current method of voting;
n the loss of the current
opportunity for discussion with colleagues, particularly Ministers during
n the possibility of more
divisions due to the ease of voting.
Members seen to be voting
The introduction of an electronic voting system to the House may reduce
the visibility of Members’ voting decisions. Currently, Members can
easily be seen as they move to either side of the Chamber to indicate their
decision. Speaker Martin recognised this aspect and recommended that the
current process be retained if electronic voting were introduced.
Ms Judith Middlebrook noted that this process is seen as ‘having symbolic value
in terms of Members publicly supporting a particular decision’.
There is already in divisions a public aspect: not only are decisions by
Members visible but, by their nature, the decision-making processes engage the
audience—the Australian public—in the immediacy of the democratic process.
There is a certain theatrical aspect to the ringing of the
bells and the summoning of Members to the chamber. The drama is heightened when
there is the possibility of Members crossing the floor, or, when free votes are
held, the way in which individual Members vote is the object of considerable
The Secretary of DPS stated that in many ways electronic voting is seen
as a natural element of more open and efficient parliaments.
Reference has already been made to the Clerk’s regard for ‘the integrity
of the votes’ as ‘paramount’. Retaining visibility in
the way Members vote would be some counter to concerns that an electronic
voting system might enable misuse of votes or fraudulent votes. While Speaker
Martin conceded that theoretically it is possible for a Member to cast a vote
(electronically) for an absent colleague he considered the possibility very
low. Ms Middlebrook reported
in 2003 only two cases in which a vote was cast by someone other than the
Member. Mr Bradshaw noted that
in the United States House of Representatives, where members use voting
stations rather than voting from their own seats (thus providing an opportunity
for fraud), there had never been an instance of it occurring.
Speaker Martin considered peer pressure was sufficient to discourage
abuse of the system. Bradshaw made two
suggestions to prevent fraud: Members should not be able to share their voting
cards with others and the time allocated for voting should only be sufficient
for each Member to cast their own vote.
From time to time, opinions are expressed about the potential
efficiencies of Members and Senators being able to vote from their offices outside
the Chamber, that is, remotely. The President of the Senate identified the
n it could well give
rise to de facto proxy voting, by Senators leaving their cards with other
n misunderstandings as
to the question to be determined, more accidental results and more disputed
results would probably occur;
n party whips would be
unable to check on those voting and to arrange and adjust pairs quickly as they
do now in the chamber; and
n voting would no
longer be a public act requiring the personal appearance of every Senator
voting, and this could lead to an adverse public perception and probably would
be politically unacceptable.
Speaker Martin had found in 1993 that none of the parliaments visited
‘would countenance any suggestion that Members should be able to cast their
votes from locations outside the Chamber’. In 2006 the Committee
found a similar sentiment prevailed in the parliaments it visited. None had
considered ‘any form of remote electronic voting’.
Another recurring concern about the impact of electronic voting is the
loss of a pause or ‘cooling-off’ period in proceedings that is provided
currently by ‘physical’ divisions and the time they take. The opportunity for
‘cooling off’ was noted by the Clerk and by Speaker Martin
who considered (in 1993) that the time taken for the division:
… proved a useful circuit-breaker allowing strongly aroused
emotions to be calmed and leading to improved proceedings in the House after
Many reports refer to this although, in his submission to the Committee’s
1996 inquiry, the then Clerk of the House suggested:
… that the vast majority of the divisions called for in
recent times is “pro-forma” or routine in nature and generally it is difficult
to see a need for a cooling-off period. Whilst there will obviously be
exceptions it is believed that this should no longer be considered an important
On the surface, at least, the dynamics of the 43rd Parliament
might suggest a greater need for the occasional pause in proceedings than was
considered necessary in 1996.
Ms Middlebrook noted that the lack of a ‘cooling-off’ period did not
seem a concern to those parliaments that used an electronic voting system.
This issue is clearly one that could be canvassed in detail in the future.
Opportunity for discussion
Loss of the opportunity to speak to colleagues, particularly to Ministers,
during a division, is still considered significant. The Clerk notes that
divisions provide a ‘very valued opportunity’ for Members to discuss matters
with colleagues and Ministers. Speaker Martin
acknowledged that the opportunity would be missed.
This was reiterated in the Committee’s report in 2003.
The President of the Senate went further, suggesting that the time saved by
electronic voting may even be lost as Senators would continue to use the time
before and after a vote to consult colleagues and Ministers gathered for the
vote. The President also
suggested that shortening the break in proceedings would deprive Senators of
valuable preparation time between matters of business:
The time currently spent in a division provides a break in
the proceedings which allows Senators responsible for the next business to get
their bearings and to prepare themselves, for example, by finding relevant
This is another issue that invites more consideration in the future.
Increase in number of divisions
The Clerk noted that the ease of voting electronically may lead to
Members calling for additional divisions. Bradshaw considered this
was not generally the case but conceded that it had occurred, citing the Belgian
and Finnish Parliaments. Interestingly he observed that, in the United States
House of Representatives, the introduction of electronic voting in 1972 had at
first lead to an increase in divisions but that this was followed by a decrease.
Speaker Martin noted that the Swedish Parliament appeared to have an
increase in divisions after the introduction of electronic voting but that such
an increase in the House would not impinge on the overall benefits:
… it is felt that given the speed of operation of the
equipment any additional divisions called for and the consequent loss of the
time of the House would be relatively insignificant in the overall scheme of
The results from the survey for the Association of Secretaries General
of Parliaments indicated that only 6% of respondents reported an increase in
divisions after the implementation of electronic voting, while 67% had no
There are other possibilities:
The tactical use of divisions (where there is a time limit on
debate and divisions are used to fill up that time preventing the question
being put by the Chair) may also be limited by a quicker division process.
Two additional issues need to be considered in more detail than has been
available to this short inquiry:
n the cost of
implementing and maintaining electronic voting; and
n the ‘design
integrity’ of the Chamber.
The cost of implementing and maintaining an electronic voting system has
been a major consideration. In 1993 Speaker Martin estimated it would cost
approximately $A2 million over three years including ongoing support costs.
In 1996 the Procedure Committee gave cost as its major reason for rejecting
electronic voting as an option for improving the conduct of divisions.
A decade later, the Procedure Committee recognised that the technology
and the costs would have changed significantly, making it difficult to provide
useful advice without more certainty:
The underlying technology, the options available and the
acquisition and recurrent costs are all changing apace. It is impossible to
provide applicable information unless it is known when, if ever, electronic voting
might be introduced.
The Secretary of the DPS indicates that although the cost of introducing
electronic voting in the past may have been prohibitive, it is ‘continually
decreasing’. However, further indications
about potential costs were not provided.
The Clerk also suggests that costs may have diminished:
With advances in technology and a reduction in cost of
applications and associated hardware (for example, the cost of display screens
which we believe was a significant component of the original estimate), it is
likely that the cost would be much more modest than the 1994 estimates.
There may also be some simple cost-effective alternatives that would
speed up the count and details of the result of a division. The Clerk referred
to the current ‘pen and paper system’ used by the tellers and suggested they
might use tools such as iPads. This could enable names to be selected from a
pre-populated list, counted concurrently, and relayed to the Speaker and
Clerks’ laptops. This ‘may assist in a slightly quicker provision of the
results of divisions beyond the chamber…’, that is, the record might be
available more quickly although the Clerk considered it was not clear that the
actual count would be completed more quickly.
Design integrity in a heritage building
Design difficulties may be encountered when installing an electronic
voting system in the Chamber. Both the Clerk and the Secretary, DPS, drew
attention to this in their submissions, although it was not an issue canvassed
in previous reports.
The Clerk emphasised that, as had occurred with other changes to the
Chamber, there would need to be consultation with the architects and ‘design
integrity’ officers in the DPS to ensure that ‘any changes do not adversely
impact on the overall design’ of the Chamber.
Similarly, the Secretary, DPS, stated:
Whatever the technology adopted to enable electronic voting,
it will be important that the original design and heritage aspects of the
Parliament House are maintained. Special consideration will need to be given to
any fixed devices, including screens and associated wiring requirements.
The changing nature of technology may circumvent some concerns. For
example, the move to wireless connectivity may cause less disruption to the
structure of the Chamber.
A future inquiry
A future inquiry would benefit from examining several issues in detail. As
well as gauging the attitude of Members to electronic voting generally, an
inquiry would need to consider any necessary and desired changes to the division
process if electronic voting were introduced, including whether:
n to retain the current
systems of ringing the bells, locking the doors and then voting;
n access to voting should
remain confined to the Chamber;
n to retain the
traditional ‘Ayes to the right of the chair, Noes to the left’.
A future inquiry would also need to examine the features a system best
suited to the needs of the Chamber would require, including:
n voting stations at individual
Members’ desks and with or without a display screen;
n voting stations for
Members of the front bench and shadow front bench who, unlike other Members, do
not have desks;
n the inclusion or not
of an ‘abstain’ vote button;
n means for a Member to
change his or her vote if it had been entered incorrectly.
For what period should an electronic vote remain ‘open’ and what impact would
this have on potential time savings?
In addition, attention would need to be paid to the technology and its
implications for the existing ICT requirements of the Chamber:
n the interaction of
the system with parliamentary procedures and systems;
n security, privacy and
authentication of Members;
n the use of fixed or
mobile devices (or both);
n the integration of
n the nature of the
n a preference for
wired or wireless; and
n display panels, both
the type and the information to be displayed.
When the basic requirements for an electronic voting system for the
House have been assessed, and the options clarified in terms of technology, design,
heritage, and indicative cost, then preferences can be considered in an
informed way. Detailed costs of developing, implementing, and maintaining a preferred
system could be obtained.
It may be that the potential savings in time of the House and quicker availability
of division details are advantages that are too modest to justify the costs. Equally,
it may be that there are other potential advantages and disadvantages that will
While concerns regarding technology may have been largely addressed, the
procedural and contextual issues remain. The impact of electronic voting on the
work and culture of the Chamber is a significant and complex issue. It is not a
matter of tradition versus modernity. Nor is it simply about technology or
design or cost or efficiency, although these are all elements to be assessed. At
its highest level, this can be seen as an issue about the decision-making
process of one of the central institutions in the Australian system of
government. At a more practical level, it can be seen to be about the way 150
people demonstrate—and are seen to demonstrate—their choices on the major
questions of the day.
Maintaining the transparency and accountability of the House is critical
to its strength. Continuing (and improving where possible) the visibility of
Members’ decision-making is a significant element of this. Members value the
opportunity currently provided by divisions to move away from their allocated
seats and speak informally to their colleagues and Ministers. Anecdotal
evidence suggests that many consider these informal professional exchanges essential
to their work and this should be considered in more detail.
This has been very much a preliminary examination and the Committee
cannot make any considered conclusion or recommendation without details of the options
and their implications. The costs will likely have decreased since the initial
estimates some 20 years ago but any future inquiry will need details about the technologies
available and the likely impact of implementation.
Difficulties may be posed by design integrity and the heritage aspects
of Parliament House and the magnificent Chamber of the House. However, other
heritage buildings have implemented electronic voting and overcome the issues
and concerns presented. A future inquiry will need to obtain more information
on the structural issues and the way they have been dealt with in other legislatures.
For the present the Committee must simply acknowledge these issues and
commend a more in-depth inquiry to a future Procedure Committee. It is
interesting to note that the Modernisation Committee in the United Kingdom
House of Commons rejected a proposal for electronic voting because, when it
surveyed Members about a number of electronic voting options, there wasn’t an
alternative that had great support from Members.
Finally, while this is a topic that interests many, the ultimate conclusion
following the report of any future inquiry should rest with the House. The
Clerk’s reference to the 2003 report of the Procedure Committee is apt:
The Committee’s view is that all Members should be allowed to
express a view before the House reaches an in-principle position on electronic
voting. This can best be achieved by debating the proposal in the House.