Parliamentary Committee votes for change to safeguard Aussie elections

A joint Parliamentary Committee has recommended the government provide funding for an upgrade to technology systems at the Australian Electoral Commission to allow scanning and electronic counting of House of Representatives ballot papers. This would need to be accompanied by extensive technical amendments to legislation that governs the way federal elections are managed in Australia.

The Third interim report on the inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 federal election by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters notes that “Since 1983, the size and scale of federal elections have posed greater complexities and challenges, which the AEC has at times struggled to meet despite the dedication and commitment of their staff.”

The AEC’s original submission observed that federal elections are ‘often described as the largest peace-time logistical events in Australia.’ The AEC characterised the current model for conducting federal elections as being unsustainable: “the current model for the conduct of elections, including the recruitment and training of temporary election officials, is at the end of its useful life.

While the AEC’s funding has been sufficient for election delivery within the existing model, there has not been any capacity for significant improvement or replacement of systems.”

With changes to the way preferences were allocated in the Senate before the federal election in 2016, the AEC introduced a semi-automated process to scan Senate ballot papers.

Developed in partnership with Fuji Xerox Document Management Solutions, the solution involved Senate ballot papers being scanned using Kodak i5650 scanning hardware and entered into TIS eFlow imaging software, where OCR technology captured voter preferences, with manual verification by a human operator.

Due to Australia's complex Senate quota system, the counting was already handled electronically.

"The committee supports modernising the conduct of Australian federal elections, particularly through the use of new technology," the report said. "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."

“Overdue upgrades of the AEC’s core information technology systems pose unacceptable risks to the integrity of elections.”

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.

“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 also advised the Committee that its 1990s information technology systems are potentially expensive to maintain and vulnerable to evolving cyber threats.

“Recent cyber security incidents, for example, the incident affecting the 2016 census conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and ongoing speculation about the recent US Presidential election, demonstrate the potential catastrophic risk of a failure in this domain.”

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 did not provide the Committee with an estimate of how much this upgrade would cost, although it did note that this would require a robust business case and input from expert advisors over the next 10 years.

The AEC also advised it “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.”

The Committee recommended that the AEC “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.”

The Committee also recommended the AEC extend the deployment of electronic certified lists, an alternative to the traditional paper certified list used to mark off electors as they receive their ballot papers, at the next federal election to ensure all polling places (including all absentee voting points) and mobile teams be equipped with at least one electronic certified list, or as a minimum an electronic roll lookup facility.

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 full report is available HERE.