One outcome of the election on July 2 has been a collective frustration with how long it has taken to learn the result; though it is incorrect to call this a delay in counting the votes.
It is important to note that there is nothing particularly different about the counting process this election, it is just that there have been a surprising number of very close outcomes and the margin between the major parties has been so close.
Labor leader Bill Shorten said “In a non-partisan spirit, I will be writing to Mr Turnbull and saying ‘really, we are a grown up democracy. It shouldn’t be taking eight days to find out who has won and who has lost. I actually think it is long overdue to look at electronic voting in this country.”
Australian Information Industry Association CEO Rob Fitzpatrick said “The federal election cliffhanger should be a wake-up call for the Australian Electoral Commission to shed its reluctance to embrace electronic voting.”
InnovationAus.com readers will know that when George Julius patented the automatic totalisator in 1914 it was a repurposing of a voting technology he couldn’t sell.
It is likely that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters will conduct the customary inquiry into the conduct of the election, so everyone will get their chance to comment by way of submission. It is interesting to note that the Government never formally responded to the last report of the Committee. It is also worth noting that the report contained recommendations regarding pens rather than pencils and the usual obsession about voter identification.
The Foreword began “The 2013 federal election will long be remembered for the loss of 1,370 Senate votes in Western Australia. It was the greatest failure in the history of the Australian Electoral Commission.” That this is the greatest failure in over a century is testament to how robust our voting system has been.
When discussing the benefits of ‘electronic voting’ it is important to understand what the problem is we are trying to solve. At the end of this article is a description of how our voting system currently works. The delay in learning the result of the House of Representatives has nothing to do with the speed or the accuracy of the counting but the speed of the mail.
There has been plenty of previous consideration of electronic voting – including reports of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters from every election since 1998.
The NSW Government has already introduced an electronic voting technology called iVote. It was introduced in 2011 for the purpose of enabling blind or vision impaired voters to cast a ballot unaided, that is, so they could be afforded the same secrecy provisions as other people. (Trivia – the secret ballot is also called the Australian ballot because we first used it.) iVote doesn’t even require a computer – it can even be used with just a phone.
It has however now been extended to use for people who would otherwise use a postal or absent vote. As a consequence, for the last State election there were no overseas voting centres. iVote is particularly effective of both providing an audit trail but also preserving secrecy of the actual vote.
The only place where counting the votes is complicated remains the Senate. Even the voting can be hard with the very large ballot papers. The count has been made harder at this election with the move from just voting 1 above the line automatically following a party ticket to optional preferential above the line.
This change was intended to make it harder for small parties to get elected, but it is hard to judge its effectiveness because of the lower quota in a full Senate election.
However, in an ordinary half Senate election it is more likely to just change which minor party gets elected rather than stop them. As votes exhaust the quota simply reduces. Speeding up the Senate count could occur if the old list voting was still allowed as an option.
A valid Senate vote above the line could be just a 1 or a minimum of 1 to 6. If the elector just votes 1 then the vote would follow a party ticket which had to allocate all preferences.
The issue that people want to fix with “electronic voting” has already been fixed in NSW with iVote. It is a simple process to adopt it nationally. To get that to happen just do some research and make a cogent submission to the Joint Committee.
How Vote Counting Works
Before we can contemplate what electronic voting means we need to understand how voting currently works. An ordinary vote is cast by enrolled voters presenting to a polling place in their own electorate, having their name marked on the roll, receiving their two ballot papers (initialled by the polling clerk to demonstrate they were actually issued and aren’t forgeries brought in by the voter, and then placed in the ballot box.
Once the polling place closes (after everyone who was in the queue to vote by 6pm has voted) the polling officials add up the number of ballot papers issued, and subtract from it the number of spoilt ballot papers (which a voter got replaced with a new ballot paper).
Other officials commence the scrutiny. They empty the House of Representatives (HoR) ballot box and sort the papers into piles depending on which candidate received the first preference vote.
Each candidate can appoint one or more scrutineers to observe the scrutiny. This is one of the ways the security of the ballot is ensured. You can’t rub out numbers and replace them being watched by people!
Once sorted the votes are counted. They are counted by being gathered into bundles of ten, then bundles of a hundred. Once all the first preference votes are counted the number of votes cast is compared to the number of ballot papers issued. One of the jobs of the official standing next to the ballot boxes is to make sure no one leaves the polling place with their ballot paper!
Once the first preference count is complete a “two party preferred count” is conducted – usually between the Coalition and Labor. This is simply done by dividing the first preference vote of the other candidates by which of the Coalition and Labor has the lower number.
Absent and other declaration votes (people who don’t appear on the roll) are separately bundled in sealed envelopes – the number of which is compared to the number of papers issued.
As the latter stages of the HoR vote are being completed the Senate box is opened and emptied. (Though if the count of HoR votes has too few votes the Senate box might be opened earlier looking for any HoR votes that were put in the wrong box. One election I scrutineered at there were ten HoR votes missing initially, so they were looked for in the Senate boxes and not found. In the end they were found caught in the folds at the bottom of the HoR box – the cardboard boxes rather than metal ones were quite new then). Only the first preference above the line votes are counted.
Once that is done the results are rung through to the divisional returning office, and everything is bundled up and sent to the divisional returning office for the next stage of counting.
There are three kinds of other votes to discuss – pre-poll, postal and absent votes. Pre-poll is a relatively recent innovation designed to reduce the number of postal and absent votes, but it mostly is just used for convenience. The expectation was that up to 30 per cent of the vote could be pre-poll.
Pre-poll votes are cast in the three weeks prior to the election (starting a few days after nominations closed and the draw for order on the ballot paper completed) at a restricted number of locations – usually the divisional returning office. These are counted on Saturday night once the polls close – but they come in late because they are simply so much bigger than other polling places. While counting might conceivably start earlier since they aren’t polling places on election day, candidates have no spare resources to allocate as scrutineers.
Postal votes can be returned from anywhere in the world. Applications for postal vote can be made once the election date is set, but ballot papers can’t be sent till after nominations close. Time has to be allowed for ballot papers to be sent, received, cast, and returned. The date for return of postal votes isn’t until July 15, so technical the vote can’t be complete anywhere till then.
Finally, absent votes are votes cast at a polling place other than one in the voter’s own electorate. There are polling places set up in a small number of overseas locations, such as Australia House in London. The absent votes need to be returned from everywhere else to the relevant divisional returning office, the voters marked off on the electoral roll and the included in the count.
No counting took place on Sunday or Monday as part of the response to the WA issue. Nothing was counted till all the votes were securely received where they were meant to be (a number known because results were rung through).
In the final count, actual preferences are distributed once all the votes are received – so once again no actual preference count has been completed anywhere. (Note on Wednesday the electorate of Mallee was declared – that is “it has been determined that the count has progressed to a point where the result for that division is clear.” This can happen before a preference count because a candidate won a majority on first preferences alone.
The Senate vote is slightly different. All votes are sent to a single state counting centre. They are then data entered – twice – for computer counting. At the 2016 election the Senate ballot papers are being scanned. Once all loaded the button is pressed and the computer does the preference allocation process (which is a little complicated under Hare-Clark).