During this inquiry, the Committee received evidence from stakeholders who have expressed frustration with the way in which the 2016 federal election was conducted. Some of which have included the processes adopted by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). These include:
election services for people with disability;
prevention of alleged irregularities; and
issues at polling booths, such as long queues.
The Committee has considered these and other concerns and sought advice from the AEC on where its capabilities could be improved.
The AEC has provided the Committee with suggestions for where its capabilities could be potentially improved. The AEC grouped them into four categories:
more modern and efficient delivery of the complex, multi‑part, paper‑based election system, which may include further automation;
investment in information/technology (IT) systems to allow for upgrade or replacement and cross‑system integration;
further work on the employment models for the recruitment and training of the temporary election workforce and professional development of the AEC’s permanent workforce; [and]
addressing unnecessary prescriptions and other technical issues within the Commonwealth Electoral Act (1918) (‘the Electoral Act’).
The AEC submitted that legislative and financial constraints have so far prevented the AEC from trialling or investing in possible solutions in these areas.
Risks to successful conduct of elections
Complexity of the federal election system
The AEC has noted in its submissions that, since the March 1983 federal election, the size and scale of federal elections have posed greater complexities and challenges for the organisation. These challenges include:
the size of the eligible voting populations;
the manner in which electors and other stakeholders engage with the AEC; and
the number of political parties and candidates seeking to participate.
Since 1983, the electoral roll has increased at a rate of roughly one million electors every two elections. This has increased:
the number of electoral divisions;
the average number of electors per divisions; and
the average number of electors per polling place.
The number of pre-poll votes has grown from 5.9 per cent to 22.1 per cent of all votes issued in the past five federal elections.
The AEC submitted that during the election period, operational visibility of voting activities around Australia are limited:
There is no AEC ‘command centre’, there is no existing system which enables AEC senior management to have visibility of (or even reliable communication with) polling places and staff working in out-posted centres, and there is no ability to source real time data during the electoral period to monitor the flow of voters (including queues), ballot paper supply, progress of the count, and the progress of critical (sometimes urgent) issues that arise in polling places.
Notwithstanding constraints and complexities, the AEC’s submission noted that it operates in a ‘high risk environment which has zero tolerance for error.’
Complexity of legislation
The AEC’s has described the Electoral Act as ‘extremely complex and prescriptive.’ The AEC added that ‘any failure of the AEC and its staff to comply with the requirements of the Electoral Act can… lead to an election being voided by the Court of Disputed Returns.’
The AEC provided the following examples to demonstrate the extent of the prescriptive nature of the Electoral Act:
Legislative constraints mean the AEC cannot easily invest in technology or make changes to procedures which might make elections more efficient and strengthen integrity;
The prescriptive nature of the Electoral Act in relation to formality, scrutiny and recounts compels the AEC to conduct a complex initial count, then fresh scrutiny and an additional recount process where there are close seats. This prescriptive process can impact on the timely delivery of the result of the election and the eventual formation of government;
Legislative complexity also challenges the accuracy of the roll. Restrictions on the AEC's power to remove electors from the roll in a timely and efficient manner have the potential to impact on the integrity of the electoral roll and therefore the election results; and
While ever a paper-supported election model is used, complex logistics arrangements will be necessary.
Ageing information technology systems
The AEC submitted that its two main IT systems have been in use since the early 1990s and that they require either an upgrade or replacement. These include the systems providing operational visibility of election activities.
Some 25 years on… AEC information technology systems do not enable the agency to provide an agile response to changes in the legislative, regulatory, demographic or technology environments.
The AEC submitted that with investment in information technology, an electronic polling management system could be used for federal elections.
The AEC also noted that during recent the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory elections, officials could monitor activity and ballot paper stock at every polling place in real time.
Inconsistent election experience
The AEC submitted that many state and territory electoral commissions are making significant investments in technology and services that will ensure their electoral systems keep pace with community expectations. In contrast, the AEC submitted that there has been minimal investment (by both sides of politics) in the federal electoral system by both sides.
For example, Mr Rikki Chaplin (Blind Citizens Australia), said:
The introduction of an electronic voting system, even if limited to certain demographic groups, is the preference widely held by people who are blind or vision impaired. The New South Wales system of electronic voting continues to be greatly appreciated by people who are blind or vision impaired and, to our knowledge, has not experienced any breaches of security.
The AEC noted that the Australian public have a different election experience between state and federal elections with many voters not realising that the AEC is a separate entity to the various state electoral commissions that conduct state elections. The perception of most electors is that both state and federal electoral commissions are the same entity.
Recent AEC modernisation
Notwithstanding the financial and legislative constraints, the AEC has introduced some new services, adopted new technology and provided more training for election staff.
Introduction of new technology
The AEC provided the Committee with examples of where new technology has improved outcomes during recent federal elections. These are discussed below.
Since 2009, an eReturn portal has been available for participants in the electoral process that have disclosure obligations. This allows parties, individuals and organisations to lodge their disclosure returns online.
The eReturn portal allows a greater degree of accuracy of information, and reduces the risk for error with manual data entry, increases autonomy for the participant and provides assurance of security through the use of individual credentials.
Usage has increased from approximately 36 per cent of lodgements in 2009 to 70 per cent for the 2014-15 financial year.
Electronic Certified Lists
An electronic certified lists (ECL) is an alternative to the traditional paper certified list used to mark off electors as they receive their ballot papers, in electronic format on a device. The AEC characterised ECLs as being ‘computerised versions of the electoral roll’.
During the 2016 federal election, 1 544 ECLs were deployed at polling stations. The AEC’s submission commented that while these were beneficial, the number used was ‘negligible compared to the total number of polling stations.’
The potential expanded use of ECLs for future elections is discussed in chapter three.
Online enrolment was introduced by the AEC for the enrolment period prior to the 2013 federal election, when 85 per cent of all enrolment transactions between the announcement of the election and the close of the rolls were completed online. The AEC submitted that:
…the AEC’s Online Enrolment Service (OES) was the most common channel for enrolment transactions in this period. Eighty‑four per cent (576 363) of enrolment transactions processed during the 2016 close of rolls period originated from the OES.
The AEC believes that the increase in enrolment participation by 18–24 year olds from the historical average of below 80 per cent to over 86 per cent for the 2016 federal election is likely to be attributable to online enrolment.
On-line postal vote applications
Legislative changes in January 2011 enabled the AEC to develop an online postal vote application (PVAs) process for the 2013 Federal election. Approximately 28 per cent of postal vote applications were completed online. In 2016, this grew to approximately 35 per cent.
The AEC submitted that the increase in online postal vote applications reduced the need for manual processing and provided efficiencies in the provision of postal votes to applicable voters.
At the 2016 federal election, the AEC introduced, for the first time, the scanning of paper PVAs with the intent of maximising the efficiency of processing PVAs and the despatch of postal vote packs to voters.
The AEC has faced increasing complexity and an increasing workload at each federal election. The 2013 Keelty report recommended the AEC review workforce culture and capability to improve performance and accountability. Previous JSCEM and ANAO reports have made recommendations on improving the way the temporary election workforce is sourced, selected and managed.
From these recommendations, the AEC developed a formal workforce planning framework for the 2016 election. Reforms included:
a wholesale review of training for both temporary and APS staff;
the development of an operational workforce planning model;
a feasibility study into options regarding election recruitment; and
the introduction of character checks for senior polling staff.
Following the 2013 federal election, the AEC enhanced or restructured all aspects of its training for polling officials at the 2016 federal election. The reform’s intent was focussed on ballot paper handling principles and electoral integrity.
The following training and resources were introduced at the 2016 election:
Senior polling officials had access to the AEC’s Election Training System (ETS) and were required to complete a selection of online training modules specific to their role;
Senior polling officials, such as officers‑in‑charge, second‑in‑charge, polling place liaison officers and others received a role‑specific Election Procedures Handbook (EPH) and had access to online resources;
Ordinary vote issuing officers, ballot box guards and queue controllers, attended a briefing by their officer‑in‑charge before commencing duty on election day. They also had access to an optional online resources and training; and
Selected permanent APS staff who had an election role were required to complete the ‘Election Readiness Program’ (ERP) – an online training course.
Following a review of the 2013 election, measures to improve monitoring of training completions were introduced, with completion rates recorded in the AEC’s Election Training System. High completion rates for both face-to-face and online training were recorded.
The Committee notes that the AEC has implemented a series of changes to improve how elections are conducted. There are areas of risk, in particular complex legislation and the age of the AEC’s information technology systems.
There is scope for further modernisation and reform, which is discussed in the next chapter of this report.