The 2019 election ‘was conducted against what was probably the most complete roll since Federation’ with a record enrolment of 97 per cent of the population and an increase in turnout against previous elections.
The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has sought to improve access to the polls to ensure all eligible Australians can make their vote count. The Committee received evidence regarding programs that help increase voter accessibility such as:
Indigenous Electoral Participation Program;
Remote Area Mobile Polling (RAMP);
iVote and other vision impaired services;
Mobile Polling for hospital patients and nursing home residents;
Antarctic and ADF voter programs;
Producing election materials in languages other than English.
Pre-poll and postal voting are also regarded as options that help promote access to the polls. These issues are discussed in Chapter 3.
The Committee also received evidence relating the appropriateness of pre-poll voting centres and election day polling booth venues and calls for the introduction of voter ID to mitigate voter fraud.
Indigenous participation in the electoral process
The engagement of First Nations people in the electoral process was previously explored by JSCEM in 2018 in the Report on the conduct of the 2016 election and matters related thereto. Recommendation 13 stated:
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government consult with Indigenous communities and stakeholders to devise culturally appropriate enrolment requirements for Indigenous voters with a view to increase Indigenous engagement with the electoral process.
The participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in elections continued to be of interest to the Committee during this inquiry. The Committee took evidence from the AEC regarding its work in this space and from Indigenous advocacy groups.
The AEC collaborated with a number of government and non-government stakeholders to develop initiatives to strengthen Indigenous participation in the 2019 election. Notable amongst these were partnerships with:
The Brisbane Broncos and the West Coast Fever, to increase enrolment and awareness among students aged 16 and up through the ‘Your Vote is Your Future’ program;
The AFL, to distribute educational videos in remote communities in the Northern Territory via their Facebook page, electronic newsletter and AFLX tournament; and
The Department of Human Services, to disseminate educative materials and participation messaging through their social media and digital platforms, in their Remote service Centres and scripts for clients enquiring about Indigenous specific payments such as ABSTUDY.
The AEC maintained a number of channels dedicated to Indigenous communications, including a separate Facebook page, videos produced in 11 languages and radio broadcasts in 18 languages.
The precise impact of these programs on Indigenous participation in the 2019 election is difficult to quantify as the AEC does not collect data on individual voters, however, the estimated Indigenous enrolment rate has modestly improved from 2018 to 2020.
Indigenous Electoral Participation Program
The Indigenous Electoral Participation Program (IEPP) has been administered by the AEC since 2010, with the goal of increasing enrolment, voter turnout and formality of Indigenous people in Australian elections.
The IEPP continues to evolve. Prior to the 2019 election period, the AEC conducted a new pilot activity as part of the program in a number of remote Indigenous communities, such as Galiwin’ku and Milingimbi, which was aimed at increasing electoral awareness and enrolment.
The pilot utilised and trained local community members to deliver information on enrolment, formality and appropriate participation in elections. Local engagement was complemented with the provision of digital resources and translated material provided in the lead up to election day. Some successful outcomes were indicated by the AEC:
…very early analysis of the election outcomes confirmed a measurable increase in turnout in Galiwinku …(and) an overall decrease in informality across the three communities where we did that project.
However, the AEC did comment that the program is expensive to run and relies on the continuation of funding:
…we find the money internally, but that is an expensive program…There are other programs we want to trial as well, and we are working with government to make sure we've got sufficient funding to be able to deliver those.
Remote area mobile polling
Indigenous Australians in remote areas were serviced by the AEC’s remote area mobile polling teams, which travelled a total of 3.4 million km during the 2019 election. These services operated over a two week period from Monday 6 May, visiting 207 locations, of which 169 were Indigenous communities.
Communication efforts targeted to Indigenous people often contained information on the scheduling of these remote services.
The AEC told the Committee that 42 mobile polling teams were sent out to remote communities, whose purpose was ‘to ensure that Indigenous Australians in remote communities were enabled to vote.’ This was roughly on par with remote mobile polling provisions for the 2016 election.
Some inquiry participants felt that additionally resourcing for this program – among others – was needed to improve outcomes for Indigenous voters. Mrs Bess Price offered the following perspective to the Committee on some of the core challenges to be overcome:
Most of my people don't speak English as their first language and they don't quite understand why they have to vote every four years. We have to explain to them the reasons why we need their votes and they need to be enrolled. That's the problem. There are not enough resources to get Electoral Commission people out on communities to spend weeks at time just talking to people about how important it is. Education is really important.
Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory elaborated on the challenging conditions faced in Milingimbi, NT:
The lines with that long that people were lining up on a dusty road, and they were people in wheelchairs and elderly people. You can imagine the heat and the conditions in the Territory. Elderly and sick people wanted to vote but could not access the polling centres. The polling teams are not allowed to visit the aged-care centres or homes, and therefore those people were denied an opportunity to cast their vote.
The logistical challenge of organising a federal election is a considerable one. The AEC have, on average, four weeks’ notice to roll out around 7,000 polling places and to train, engage an employ around 100,000 staff.
Mobile polling offers the ability for remote and vulnerable Australians to access the polls. For the 2019 election, the AEC provided ‘557 mobile polling teams that went to over 3,000 locations.’
The AEC conceded that, despite online and face-to-face training for staff and host facilities, inconsistency of service at mobile polling stations does sometimes occur.
Examples heard by the Committee tended to occur in facilities for vulnerable people, including hospitals and nursing homes, where high levels of cooperation with facility staff were required to assist electors with the process of voting.
Improvements to mobile polling were previously suggested by JSCEM in 2018 as part of its Report into the conduct of the 2016 election and matters related thereto. Recommendation 23 stated:
The Committee recommends that the Australian Electoral Commission strengthen and improve co-operation with the management of the facilities their mobile polling teams visit to ensure that all electors have the opportunity to vote.
Australian Defence Force personnel
Evidence provided by the AEC stated that it continues to deliver services to enable Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel to vote, including those that are deployed. This is managed in conjunction with the Department of Defence and achieves a high level of success.
The AEC provided an overview of standard arrangements:
The ADF Personnel Administration Manual recommends… [that] ADF personnel apply to become General Postal Voters, or otherwise, apply for a postal vote online… Where practical, access to early voting services is also offered through Overseas Voting centres operated at approved Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Austrade overseas posts.
Postal voting – the method utilised by deployed ADF personnel – is explored further in Chapter 3. The AEC notes that:
The timely delivery and return of postal votes remains an ongoing challenge that is outside the AEC’s control.
Meeting the needs of ADF voters was previously explored by JSCEM in 2018 as part of the Report on the conduct of the 2016 election and matters related thereto. Recommendation 22 stated:
The Committee notes the importance of Australian Defence Force personnel being able to vote in a timely and efficient manner, and recommends that the Australian Electoral Commission ensures that postal votes for Australian Defence Force personnel are dispatched at the earliest possible time to allow the ADF time to forward those to its personnel for completion and return to Australia.
The Committee notes the importance of Australian Defence Force personnel being able to vote, and recommends, in addition to the 2016 report, that the Australian Electoral Commission ensures that postal votes for Australian Defence Force personnel are dispatched at the earliest possible time, with consideration given to premium or priority mail services, to allow the Australian Defence Force time to forward those to its personnel for completion and return to Australia.
The AEC publishes information on enrolment, voting and formality on their website in 29 languages (not including Indigenous languages), and offers an interpreter service with 18 dedicated language lines. Easy read guides in plain English and detailed graphics are also available. These materials are distributed to non-English speaking communities during the election period.
Notwithstanding the significant efforts deployed by the AEC and noted earlier in this report, language accessibility is an ongoing issue for Indigenous communities.
Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory commented that, as a result of limited English language knowledge and literacy problems, some Indigenous voters require additional support at the polling venue. It was suggested that the AEC could contract with existing interpreter services in the Northern Territory to train local staff in electoral protocols.
The AEC has expressed an interest in further exploring the use of local staff who can deliver information in-language, but also recognised that:
…we need to look at how we can deliver sustained value and sustained engagement in this space given the sorts of budget constraints that everyone is under as well.
Voter identification and multiple voting
Some inquiry participants supported the introduction of voter identification requirements. Mrs Robyn Nolan maintained that this is a ‘common-sense approach’, consistent with the fact that ‘in today's society, people accept that there is a need for identification’ to participate in many everyday activities.
In response to the suggestion that voter identification could disenfranchise voters, the Institute of Public Affairs pointed out that when voter identification rules were introduced for the 2015 Queensland state election:
Turnout was slightly higher than it had been at the previous election, and less than one per cent of voters cast declaration votes for uncertain identity... In other words, the effect of voter ID requirements on voter participation was negligible.
Voter identification requirements have been proposed as a solution to electors voting multiple times. The AEC gave evidence to the committee that the level of apparent multiple voting for the House of Representatives was just 0.03%, reflecting that multiple voting is:
… by and large a very small problem… where there are individuals with multiple, multiple marks—more than one—quite often there are other factors at play, including mental health issues, that make it very difficult to move forward with a prosecution in any case.
Nonetheless, the AEC acknowledged that:
… multiple voting is frequently the subject of media commentary and social media speculation. Such a degree of focus is entirely understandable: there can hardly be a more emblematic component of trust in electoral results than ensuring eligible voters only exercise the franchise wants.
The AEC supports the introduction of a new control over electors who are identified – based on data and investigations from previous electoral events – as a person who had intentionally voted multiple times. These electors would be required to vote only by declaration vote, allowing the AEC to disregard any additional votes cast by this elector.
JSCEM previously explored and recommended the introduction of voters being required to show identification in the Report on the conduct of the 2016 election and matters related thereto.
The Committee recommends that, as per its recommendation in the 2016 report, the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 be amended to require that:
voters must present a form of acceptable identification to be issued with an ordinary pre-poll or election day vote. Authorised identification must be suitably broad so as to not actively prevent electors from casting an ordinary ballot. Examples of acceptable identification would include:
photographic ID such as a drivers licence, passport, or proof of age card;
government-issued identification card, such as a Medicare card, senior’s card of concession card;
proof of address, such as an account from a utilities provider, taxation notice of assessment or Australian Electoral Commission issued voter registration letter; or
where voters cannot provide acceptable identification they must be issued with a declaration vote.
with exceptions included for itinerant, remote Indigenous voters, and other disadvantaged persons, for instance enabling a local Health or Welfare service to vouch for the identity of a person.
The Committee recommends that the electoral roll be strengthened to ensure only those with photo ID or other forms of suitable ID can enrol or change enrolment.
Distinguishing party name registrations
Analysis of election results frequently includes commentary about how the Labor vote is impaired in some seats where the Democratic Labor Party is listed higher on the ballot paper, while the Liberal vote can be similarly depressed where the Liberal Democratic Party is listed higher.
Accordingly, the random draw of candidate name order for a ballot paper can make a few percentage points difference to the result in a seat, because voters have been misled.
The Committee considers that voter choices and election outcomes should not be distorted by duplicative names appearing on the register of political parties. Indeed the two instances referred above involve minor parties copying names of major parties, presumably for purposes of appealing to part of the same voter base.
There is enough variety in the English language, to warrant party name registrations being distinguishable. It can be misleading and – some would even argue a form of ‘freeloading’ – for a party to replicate the public branding of another party rather than seek to build recognition and credibility in its own right.
The Committee recommends that section 129 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 should be amended to permit the Electoral Commissioner to remove a name or a part of a name from an existing or proposed party that replicates a key word or words in the name of another recognised party that was first established at an earlier time.
People with disabilities
As part of its commitment to the full inclusion of eligible voters in the electoral process, the AEC operated with a Disability Inclusions Strategy (2012-2020) for the duration of the 2019 election. Since then, a new strategy (2020-2030) has been established to ‘increase physical accessibility to polling places, provide alternative and assisted voting options and to ensure that voting materials are accessible for all voters.’
The AEC maintains a Disability Advisory Committee (DAC) to assist with identification and management of accessibility issues, and to monitor solutions being developed in other sectors. This committee comprises of key stakeholders from Australia’s peak disabilities organisations and meets three times a year.
The AEC identified significant logistical challenges that surround identifying and preparing polling places for polling day. These challenges impact on the AEC’s ability to provide polling places that are accessible to voters with physical limitations.
In 2018, the JSCEM made several recommendations in relation to improving access for disabled or vulnerable voters as part of the Report on the conduct of the 2016 election and matters related thereto.
Committee recommends that the Australian Electoral Commission consider revising information provided for voters to give greater clarity concerning the meaning of ‘assisted access’/’partial access’.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Electoral Commission considers the feasibility of offering express-lane queuing options for disabled, pregnant and elderly voters, or, otherwise the provision of seating options for those needing to sit down while queued.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Electoral Commission consider providing election-related material in easy-to-read and easy-English formats.
The Committee recommends that the Australia Electoral Commission work with disability advocates to better inform eligible disabled electors of the General Postal Voter application process.
The physical accessibility of polling places is considered by the AEC, who assigns an accessibility rating to each polling place. This rating will consider features such as doorway width, accessible parking and ramp availability.
Work is ongoing to harmonise differing accessibility standards between federal, state and territory electoral commissions.
During the 2019 federal election a ‘Fully Accessible Polling Place’ pilot program was conducted, which involved venues with additional accessibility features such as hearing loops, adjustable lighting, larger floor space, varied physical layouts and the ability to skype an AUSLAN interpreter.
Numerous federal MPs provided submissions to the Inquiry which raised issues regarding the physical suitability of polling places. The submissions noted instances of limited and unsuitable parking, lack of toilet facilities, misleading location names, lack of space for volunteers, significant slopes leading to entrances and lack of public transport to pre-poll locations.
The AEC acknowledged the ongoing challenges of ensuring that all polling locations are physically suitable, but noted that many factors (particularly parking) were largely ‘out of [their] control]’. Video material was available to outline the procedure for fast-tracking those with disabilities through voting queues, or to be serviced in the car park by a polling official.
The AEC noted that, as it currently stands, the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (the Electoral Act) does not contain explicit provisions for people with disabilities to become General Postal Voters (GPV), which may serve as an appropriate solution for those who cannot physically access polling places.
The AEC supports further consideration of options to either expand the current criteria to become a GPV, or broaden the circumstances the current criteria apply to.
The AEC provides telephone voting services to blind and low-vison Australians, and notes that there is potential for these services to be ‘extended to other groups that could equally benefit from such a service, particularly electors with a disability or mobility restriction or impairment.’
Some inquiry participants offered views on the effectiveness of these services. Blind Citizens Australia expressed concerns that this service was:
… not anonymous and not completely independent… We would like it refined to such a degree where no-one except for the person who is voting, and possibly their assistant if required, knows how the vote was cast.
The iVote online system is currently available for state elections in NSW, and was identified as a more suitable model, though one which would also benefit from further refinement if adopted at a federal level.
Dr Vanessa Teague was not supportive of further implementation of the iVote system, putting forward that:
… it's really not accurate to describe it as independent. In fact, it's really entirely dependent on the security and accuracy and honesty of a whole lot of corporations, people, software programs and human processes that might function correctly and properly and input the vote the person wanted into the count or that might malfunction either accidentally or deliberately and alter that vote in progress. So I don't think it's a good solution.
The Voter Choice Project highlighted that online voting has a rapidly growing social license, and that:
There will always be a group of voters who will never trust online voting or anything other than a pen on paper, but the vast majority of people would, particularly now we've moved so much of our lives online.
The Western Australian Electoral Commission trialled the iVote system for the 2017 state election and considered it to be a success, offering the following evidence:
In our post-election survey, we had 94 per cent satisfaction with it, 92 per cent said it was easy to use and 96 per cent replied that they would use the iVote system again if it were made available.
The AEC recognised that there is an evolving expectation within the community that elections will be held using more digital technology, for a higher level of accuracy and for speedier results. However, the AEC’s ability to embrace technology is strictly limited by legislative and financial impediments.
Extending the iVote system was previously addressed by JSCEM in 2018 as part of the Report on the conduct of the 2016 election and matters related thereto:
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government investigate the feasibility of extending the NSW iVote system to blind- and low-vision voters only in federal elections.
Section 93(8)(a) of the Electoral Act states that ‘A person who by reason of being of unsound mind, is incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting, is not entitled to have his or her name placed or retained on any Roll or to vote at any Senate election or House of Representatives election.’
This provision has been criticised, including in previous inquiries, as being exclusionary in nature. The phrase ‘unsound mind’, in particular, has been identified as ‘outdated and pejorative’.
The AEC notes these concerns, however, maintains that there must be:
… a mechanism for dealing with those electors who … [are] incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting… in order to protect the integrity of the electoral system, as well as to allow those who are in some way mentally incapable of casting a vote not to be penalised for not voting.
The AEC agreed with the view that ‘the ’unsound mind’ terminology need[ed] to be substituted and modernised’, suggesting ‘cognitive impairment’ as an alternative.
It was put forward that increased resourcing and support could provide a more equitable solution than exclusion from the electoral roll. Inclusion Melbourne noted that this provision is often invoked by:
… families and guardians who feel they do not have the skills to support their loved ones through the voting process and therefore resort to removing them from the roll in order to protect them from the burden of having to pay a fine.
The Committee affirms the importance of the accessibility of the electoral system to all Australians who are eligible to vote. As a liberal democracy with mandatory voting, it is important that our high level of electoral participation is, at a minimum, maintained; and preferably improved.
The AEC has provided evidence of its efforts to increase accessibility to historically marginalised groups, including Indigenous Australians, people with disabilities and those from non-English speaking backgrounds. These efforts are commendable and in most cases have returned positive results in terms of voter enrolment, turnout and formality.
Given the vastness of the Australian continent and the diversity of its electorate, it will be challenging to achieve full accessibility in our electoral system without significant investment of resources. The Committee is confident in the ability of the AEC to prioritise its resources towards programs which boost accessibility in an efficient manner.