During the inquiry, Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) identified areas where reform or amendments could be made.
The AEC has proposed a series of technical legislative amendments to ‘essentially remedy errors, defects and anomalies in the legislation’ that do not involve any change of policy.
The AEC has proposed reforms designed to ‘ensure the continued successful conduct of federal elections.’ Some of these reforms leverage reforms piloted or partially implemented by the AEC over recent years. These include:
pilot scanning of House of Representatives ballot papers;
extending the use of Electronic Certified Lists (ECLs); and
ongoing engagement with senior temporary election staff.
The AEC also identified three areas that involve long-term reform:
investment in systems, people and processes; [and]
stakeholder support and community engagement.
While the AEC’s proposals are considered within this chapter, background information can be found in chapter two. The majority of the Committee’s views and recommendations follow at the end of this chapter.
Technical legislative amendments
At the request of the Committee, the AEC provided recommendations for
34 legislative amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act (1918) (‘the Electoral Act’) to remedy errors, out-dated provisions and anomalies in the legislation that do not involve any change in policy. Some amendments relate to the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act (1984) (‘the Referendum Act’) to align it with the Electoral Act.
These amendments would correct unforeseen difficulties in processes, improve procedures and enhance the integrity of the electoral process. The suggested reforms can be summarised as follows:
improving consistency between the referendum legislation and the electoral legislation;
allowing the AEC to undertake electoral processes more efficiently without compromising integrity;
aligning legislation with contemporary AEC management structures and administrative arrangements; and
correcting minor errors and omissions in the electoral legislation.
The amendments were identified by the AEC being ‘critical first steps’. The full text of these legislative proposals, as provided by the AEC, is included as Appendix A of this report.
The Committee has considered the legislative amendments proposed by the AEC (see Appendix A). The Committee believes that making technical amendments to legislation may assist the efficacy of the AEC conducting federal elections and counting votes.
The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Electoral Act (1918) and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act (1984) be amended, based upon the Australian Electoral Commission’s proposals contained in Appendix A of this report.
Pilot scanning of House of Representatives ballot papers
The AEC recommends that the Commonwealth Electoral Act (1918) be amended to account for an electronically assisted counting process. This would permit the AEC to pilot the scanning and electronic counting of House of Representatives ballot papers at the next federal election.
Dominion Voting Systems (a Canadian company that sells ballot paper scanners) noted the issues with large scale manual counting of ballot papers and the advantages of electronic counting:
Publically scrutinized paper ballot tally procedures have traditionally been the most reliable and trusted means of determining the outcome of an election. In spite of this, manual counts are time consuming and prone to errors. The frequency of these errors increases with ballot complexity. The combination of complex ballots and late night counting can compound errors and delays. Electronic ballot counting offers equivalent levels of security, transparency, and anonymity while providing results in a timely manner. In addition, electronic ballot counters process ballots with complete accuracy. Transparency is further enhanced by the use of optical scanners that capture and retain images of each ballot scanned.
The Committee notes that postal votes can take up to 13 days to arrive, which contributes to the delay. Mr Greg Northover (private capacity) supported scanning and electronic counting of House of Representatives ballot papers to speed up the count process:
The main problem with the 2016 election was that it took weeks for the result in the House of Representatives to become known and more than a month for the Senate. Clearly without any need for connection to the internet, the electoral system (Polling Places) should be automated such that the count can be determined in near real time (instantaneously) at the close of polls – plus 2 hours for Western Australian voters.
The minimalist change scenario is to implement scanning of the existing ballot papers and this is already done in many jurisdictions overseas and in Australia including in the ACT for example.
The AEC implemented electronic counting of Senate ballot papers for the 2016 federal election following changes to the Electoral Act passed in March 2016 concerning Senate voting. The AEC submitted:
In just over three months the AEC developed, tested, certified and operationalised a new end-to-end solution to count and distribute Senate preferences. The semi-automated process, using scanning and image recognition technology to capture preferences, was developed with a contractor – Fuji Xerox Document Management Services.
Extending the use of electronic certified lists
An Electronic Certified List (ECL) is an alternative to the traditional paper certified list used to confirm an elector is enrolled for a division in an election, in electronic format on a device. ECLs are used primarily for:
looking up and marking off the elector’s name when they vote in an election;
recording if a declaration vote has been issued; and
confirming an elector’s entitlement for the election, as part of determining whether their declaration vote can be included in the count – known as ‘preliminary scrutiny of declaration votes’.
The AEC piloted ECLs in both the 2013 and 2016 federal elections. The AEC submitted:
For the 2016 federal election 1 544 ECLs were deployed for issuing ordinary and declaration votes by various polling teams and voting centres… This approach was determined following evaluation of an ECL pilot at the 2013 federal election, which used about half the number of ECLs. The pilot found ECLs were most useful in pre-poll voting centres (PPVCs) and mobile teams.
The AEC commented on the advantages of ECLs:
ECLs enabled elector identification and mark-off and real time update of a central copy of the certified list where network connectivity was present. This reduced the risk of polling official error and the risk of multiple voting and enabled more efficient search for electors, including by location.
The AEC also noted that ECLs could prevent incorrect House of Representatives ballot papers from being issued.
ECLs provide polling officials with the capacity to determine if and where the elector is enrolled in any division, whereas traditional paper certified lists are for one division only. The AEC observed that when ECLs were used in polling places to confirm the address where the elector is enrolled for the election, the number of electors being issued with the wrong House of Representatives ballot paper was significantly reduced:
AEC analysis shows that there was a significant difference in the proportion of declaration votes that were partially admitted where electronic certified lists (ECLs) containing national roll data were used, compared to where hard-copy certified lists (containing divisional roll data) were used. For example:
1 324 476 declaration votes (provisional, absent and pre-poll) were issued without the use of electronic certified lists (ECLs) of which 148 370 were partially admitted (11.2 per cent).
215 263 declaration votes (provisional, absent and pre-poll) were issued by ECLs of which 414 were partially admitted (0.19 per cent).
As a result of this issue, the AEC advised, 148 874 electors had their declaration votes partially admitted, with only their Senate ballot paper being included in the count.
Mr Antony Green (private capacity) also commented that using ECLs to confirm electors’ entitlement would reduce the number of partially accepted declaration votes:
The solution to this is to use a roll look-up for all voters not on the local roll to verify first that they are enrolled, and second to confirm the electorate where they are enrolled.
Mr Lex Stewart (private capacity) commented on the value of ECLs in reducing the opportunity for electors to vote more than once in an election:
Multiple voting could be eliminated by introducing ‘Electronic Certified Lists’ (ECLs), with polling booths linked electronically to a central Master Electoral Roll. Closing off each voter’s name from all Rolls at polling places as voting papers are issued to individual voters would prevent votes being made more than once in that person’s name.
Mr Michael Sherry, Australian Electoral Officer for the Northern Territory, commented on the advantages offered by ECLs in polling remote Indigenous communities:
They were extremely beneficial for a number of reasons. They speed up the time to identify an elector. We have challenges, if you like, identifying the spelling of Indigenous names et cetera, so the ECLs are a terrific asset in that space. They also provide the ability to print off a House of Representatives paper for another division, outside Lingiari, for example, to save carrying lots and lots of ballot papers around. It has significant advantages, particularly in the Northern Territory.
The AEC commented that further work and investment would be required to expand the ECL solution used for the 2013 and 2016 federal elections. From discussions with other Australian and New Zealand electoral management bodies about ECLs, the AEC advised:
All jurisdictions agree that using ECL devices at all issuing points would be highly beneficial, however, all agree that the high cost of devices and logistical complexities of deployment are significant blockers to achieving that goal. Despite this, the AEC seeks to increase the usage of ECLs at the next federal election but will need significant financial support to do so.
The AEC submitted that more widespread use of ECLs would bring greater integrity and efficiency to the electoral process:
More widespread ECL use could potentially reduce wait and queuing times, and allow ballot paper stocks to be monitored in real time. As noted at the 2015 by elections, where the AEC used the ECLs widely, the initial number of apparent multiple voters was greatly reduced. More widespread use of ECLs offers greater integrity of the process.
Real time information regarding voter services delivery and monitoring at polling place level would improve voter services and support polling staff deliver services more efficiently. The AEC is not funded for a national roll out of ECLs to every polling place.
The AEC advised that ‘further work is required to identify a solution that will enable a greater rollout of ECLs’ and the improvements in relation to ‘accuracy and reconciliation of ballot papers issued.’
Ongoing engagement with temporary election staff
During an election, the AEC grows from an organisation comprising less than 1 000 people to a size of more than 70 000 people. The AEC advised that as the conduct of federal elections relies upon manual processes and human involvement, this situation creates significant risks and the potential for human errors. The AEC submitted:
Changes to electoral processes, procedure and legislation, and significantly enhanced accountability requirements, amongst other changes, have made the role of the AEC’s temporary workforce more complex (and far more scrutinised) than ever before in Australia’s history.
According to the AEC, there is a 50 per cent turnover rate of temporary staff at each federal election. Turnover of temporary staff holding senior positions is lower, with approximately 80 per cent of staff being retained.
The AEC told the Committee that it faces increasing difficulty and risk in using a large temporary workforce as the main staffing component in the delivery of federal elections:
…the current model for recruitment and training of the temporary workforce is at the end of its useful life. Unless changes are made to the recruitment and training model there are likely to be significant adverse consequences for future federal elections. Perhaps the most visible of those consequences will be an inability of the AEC to meet the Australian community’s long held and cherished expectation of ‘a result on the night’.
The AEC commented that temporary election staff work in an environment of increasing workloads, complexity, scrutiny, and expected levels of assurance for each election:
It is one of those rare events where every elector walks through the doors during a brief period of time, and most of them on the day of the election. We are relying on manual systems and manual processes, and on temporary staff who do a fantastic job but, even with the best will in the world, they have received a brief period of training.
This presents significant risks for the AEC: not only in terms of the need to scale from an organisation of less than 1 000 people to one of more than 70 000, within less than five weeks but also in terms of the inevitability of human error.
The Hon Warren Snowdon MP (Federal Member for Lingiari) submitted:
Many electors whose name did not appear on the roll were turned away even though they believed they were entitled to vote and had done so before. Officials did not inform these electors of their right to claim a provisional vote.
The AEC has proposed a temporary staffing model which focuses on a core group of temporary staff who are trained to fill senior polling official positions during an election:
This would involve recruiting and training approximately 18 750 temporary staff at the supervisory level… The broad intent would be to ensure that key temporary staff who work in supervisory roles (e.g. OICs [Officers in Charge]) have been trained, certified as competent, and updated with any legislative or procedural changes on a relatively regular basis. This might only involve one or two days a year between elections.
The AEC submitted that this model would provide greater continuity of knowledge between elections:
The model proposed above would provide the AEC with a more or less continuously trained workforce able to cope with the complexities of Australia’s electoral system, including non-fixed term elections, and the ability to more easily adapt to any legislative changes in each electoral cycle.
The AEC added that this approach could potentially allow for staff to be shared with state and territory electoral commissions.
The Committee also considered the AEC’s proposals for strategic reforms, requiring significant investment over a number of electoral cycles, to ensure the long-term sustainability of Australia’s electoral system. These are outlined below.
The Commonwealth Electoral Act (1918) currently runs to 560 pages and was described by the AEC as being a ‘complex, intricate and cumbersome document.’
The AEC submitted that the restrictiveness of the Electoral Act means it ‘cannot easily utilise technology or make changes to procedures which might help make elections more efficient and strengthen integrity.’
The AEC also commented that a principles based approach to electoral legislation would allow more flexible and responsive innovation. The AEC submitted:
A principles-based approach governed by regulations would provide the relevant Minister and the Electoral Commissioner with greater flexibility to amend and improve processes by regulating rather than amending the Electoral Act between elections.
Investment in information technology
In their submission, the AEC commented on the limitation these IT systems impose on the AEC’s ability to respond to changes in elector behaviour and community expectations:
The IT systems, which have been built over a long period of time, are not able to be easily integrated with contemporary mobile platforms and in many cases, will not be supported by vendors in future.
The AEC recommended updating systems to support the future sustainability and integrity of the electoral system:
In a changing external environment, continuing investment in outdated systems that are now past their useful life is inefficient, and investment in systems built for the current and future environments must now be considered. If left in their current state, these ageing systems pose a serious risk to the ongoing sustainability and integrity of the electoral system.
The AEC advised that integration, testing and development of a new election management system into its operation would take an estimated six years. The AEC noted that this would require a robust business case and input from expert advisors over the next ten years. The AEC also advised:
The AEC does not currently have the capability, expertise or funding to commence this journey. It is critical that funding is made available now to allow the AEC to start this strategic planning in investment in systems, people and processes.
Stakeholder and community engagement
The AEC noted that modernisation requires careful planning and engagement with stakeholders:
Particular constraints around modernisation for the AEC include the need for legislative change and the ability to implement any new capabilities in line with the electoral cycle. These constraints mean that stakeholder and community engagement is critical to manage expectations and maintain trust in the AEC's ability to deliver electoral outcomes characterised by efficiency and integrity.
The Committee acknowledges that the AEC is facing challenges. The AEC has advised the Committee of the following:
the current model for conducting federal elections has reached the end of its useful life; and
due to current funding limitations, the AEC cannot make long-term investments or system upgrades to improve the way federal elections are conducted.
The AEC’s experience during the 2016 election suggests there could be potential risks to future elections. The AEC is currently resourced to provide essentially the same services at each election event, without adequate provision to keep investing in business systems and information technology.
The Committee supports modernising the conduct of Australian federal elections, particularly through the use of new technology. Introducing new technology has the potential to enhance voter experience, minimise risks related to manual processing, improve efficiency and uphold the AEC’s credibility in the eyes of voters.
Upgrades to the AEC’s information technology systems have become overdue. The Committee notes the AEC’s advice that this could take many years to complete. The AEC did not provide the Committee with an estimate of how much this upgrade would cost. At this stage, the AEC does not have available funding to begin planning and preparation for an upgrade.
The Committee’s 2014 report on electronic voting options noted the potential value of electronic scanning, counting and storage of ballot papers. The Committee notes that the AEC has implemented scanning and electronic counting of Senate ballot papers in 2016. These practices could be expanded to include House of Representatives ballot papers.
In its 2014 report, the Committee also noted the potential benefits of electronic certified lists. Extending the use of electronic certified lists could help reduce the number of electors being issued with the incorrect ballot papers.
ECLs allow polling staff to confirm where the elector is enrolled, and provide the elector with the correct ballot papers. While there remains the potential for clerical error in the issuing of ballot papers, the Committee believes extending the use of ECLs will significantly reduce the number of electors being given the wrong ballot papers.
Scrutineers fulfil an important duty. Having people involved in scrutineering elections is good for civil society. The Committee notes that electronic scanning of ballot papers does not allow for traditional scrutineering, which may be an issue in marginal seats. Changing from current practice would require an education campaign and broad support from voters and candidates.
The Committee recognises the important role of the many people who serve temporary roles for the AEC during elections. The commitment and integrity of these staff is critical to the conduct of elections and the experience of voters at polling booths.
The AEC plans to improve the retention of knowledge among officials who are recruited on a temporary basis, particularly those placed in positions of greater responsibility. The Committee supports the AEC’s efforts in this area.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government consider additional funding for the Australian Electoral Commission to invest in modernisation for future federal elections, including:
Planning and expert advice on upgrading the AEC’s information technology and business systems.
Additional training for temporary staff who are likely to remain engaged over multiple elections.
The deployment of additional electronic certified lists at polling stations.
A trial to test the scanning and electronic counting of House of Representatives ballot papers.
The Committee recommends that the AEC consider specific operational systems and training to accommodate the particular challenges associated with the conduct of elections in rural and regional areas, hospitals and aged care facilities.
The Committee recommends the Australian Electoral Commission extend the deployment of electronic certified lists at the next federal election to ensure all polling places (including all absentee voting points) and mobile teams are equipped with at least one electronic certified list, or as a minimum an electronic roll lookup facility.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Electoral Commission provide updates to the Committee every six months on priorities and progress towards modernisation for future elections, in order for the Committee to review this activity on an ongoing basis.
Senator Linda Reynolds CSC