Back to All News

Estimates: Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee: Finance Portfolio: Australian Electoral Commission

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 20 Mar 2017

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Senator RHIANNON: I would like to ask some questions about scrutineering and the count. Is it reasonable that the number of scrutineers that candidates can appoint remains linked only to AEC officials and not to the amount of data entry staff?

Mr Pirani: It is actually a requirement in the act. Section 264 sets out the number of scrutineers that a candidate is able to engage. Section 264 says:

2) A candidate is not entitled to be represented at the scrutiny at a particular counting centre by a number of scrutineers that is greater than the number of officers who are engaged in a scrutiny or counting of ballot papers at that centre.

It is specifically tied to officer service, which is a defined term in the act, which means it is the AEC staff. That is a requirement of the act.

Senator RHIANNON: What about section 265? Does that make it—

Mr Pirani: That is just how it is conducted; this is the number who can be appointed.

Senator RHIANNON: That would have been written before Senate voting reform came in and before the new way of counting. Is that correct?

Mr Pirani: Remember that the electronic counting of Senate votes has been around since the early 1990s, so—

Senator RHIANNON: I thought the method of counting had changed and was much more automated with the latest count.

Mr Pirani: As a matter of fact, yes, you are right in relation to the fact that this is the first election where we have scanned every single Senate ballot paper. That was one of the requirements with the change of the Senate voting laws. Before, the majority of ballot papers were actually counted out in the divisions and at the polling places, but as soon as we had both numbers above the line, optional preferential, as well as below the line, that all had to be changed. But the act is still clear.

Mr Rogers: Senator, you are probably aware that after that change to the act we always took Senate ballot papers to a central Senate scrutiny point in each state, where the double-blind data was entered electronically, and scrutineers were welcome at that process as well. That part of it, using some form of electronic counting mechanism, Mr Pirani is indicating has been around for a while.

Senator RHIANNON: I will come back to that to get a bit more information. Are the verification reports by IV&V and IBM publicly available?

Mr Courtney: I am not sure if the IV&V reports have been released. I will have to take that on notice. The IBM reports have not because they were not directly related to the count of the votes.

Senator RHIANNON: The IBM, you know, has not been released and the IV&V you will take on notice.

Mr Courtney: I will.

Senator RHIANNON: The IBM has not been released. Are you saying that it is commercial in confidence?

Mr Courtney: No, I am just saying it is not relevant to the actual count mechanism. It is just a report that we had done internally.

Senator RHIANNON: What was it about?

Mr Courtney: It was about the process had been put together in terms of the way we design it.

Senator RHIANNON: Mr Rogers, I think you would agree that we have entered a new system and this is the first time of its use. Often when this information is publicly available we are able to understand it more, but I will just keep going with my questions.

Mr Rogers: I might just perhaps, to be abundantly helpful, say that I agree with you in the broad that it is a new system and we did try to be as transparent as we possibly could. We worked with parties and candidates. We were very transparent with scrutineers. We went through a process of working with a range of partners including the ones that you have just mentioned. We also invited the Australian Signals Directorate to assist us with that process, and they were involved in, not doing a review, but examining parts of the process that we had asked them to do. All of the data is publicly available on our website so that, frankly, someone could build their own entire system and check the data that we have produced. In fact some people do just that. We have tried to be as transparent as we possibly can. I am conscious that we managed to produce that solution in a very short period of time and we are very confident with the result and we are confident with the process that we put in place.

Senator RHIANNON: So what about releasing the reports then?

Mr Pirani: Senator, can I also add that the act itself sets out what information we are required to give to scrutineers. Section 273A subsection (6) sets out that we are required to provide scrutineers with access to:

(a) a record of the preferences on the ballot papers that have been received by the Australian Electoral Officer and whose details have been stored in the computer (including informal ballot papers, and formal ballot papers that are not sequentially numbered); and

(b) a record of the ballot papers that are notionally transferred, or exhausted, at each count; and

(c) a record of the progress of the count of the votes, at each count. That is the count that appears on our website that is extracted from the easy-count system, that is the information that scrutineers are legally entitled to be provided and that is the information that is provided.

Mr Rogers: Senator, you and I have had discussions previously about the easy-count system and where we are with that code and other issues related to that.

Senator RHIANNON: It is the same with this issue about scrutineering, so I am learning a lot here. This is what some of our scrutineers have raised: 'In the same way that physical ballot boxes are marked with unique numbers and tamper-proofed, I understand that the software system used by the AEC made use of cryptographic hashes, a way to identify a dataset using a short string of a few dozen characters, such that any change to the dataset would cause that string of characters to change so that it would be impractical for a tamperer to make a change in which the string of characters does not change.' So I hope that is an accurate description because I wanted to say that what was queried with our office was that this process of electronic tamper-proofing was not made visible to the scrutineers. While it was possible for the scrutineers to verify that the numbers upon ballot boxes, the hard copy, matched and that the seals were not broken, it was not possible to independently verify that the data transmitted periodically from the data entry system to the counting system matched the data actually counted at the conclusion of the data entry. Is that accurate? Do we have an inconsistency there with the old fashioned way of counting and the new way? I notice that there is some head shaking. Have I been advised wrongly or is there an inconsistency?

Mr Rogers: I might start off before I hand to Mr Courtney to say that there are a number of security measures that were put in place to assist the security of that process. I mentioned before that we worked with the Australian Signals Directorate and got their views on where particular vulnerabilities were that we needed to work on. I might just ask Mr Courtney to talk about the actual technical detail that you are talking about.

Senator RHIANNON: Can I just draw your attention to the fact that I am actually talking about the scrutineering. We have people—all our parties—checking. They can do it for the boxes—what you can touch—but not for the soft versions.

Mr Courtney: Yes. Let me say that the process you have described is, in essence, correct. There is some cryptographic, if you like, technology which is used to secure the data files which hold the information, which is extracted from the ballot papers and then passed through to EasyCount. That tells us if something has changed, and we are able to track that. I would have to refer to Mr Pirani as to what exactly scrutineers are allowed to see, but I am very conscious of the fact that we have moved forward with the technology here. Perhaps the act is still looking at the paper based side of things.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

Mr Pirani: Again, my comments are that the act is very clear as to what a scrutineer is able to examine and what information from the computer system we are required to provide. That is the information that is provided in those reports that come out of EasyCount.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Mr Rogers, would you be able to take on notice if the act—and I have not been querying that—that is being followed is keeping up to date with the change in technology?

Mr Rogers: I am happy to consider that and to provide a response on that.

Senator RHIANNON: Basically, I am just trying to work out if every effort is being made by the commission to develop a form of cryptographic hash that will be publicly available to scrutineers.

Mr Rogers: I will take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I just want to describe how the counting system has been described and then ask a question about it. I understand that the Fuji Xerox data-entry staff were responsible for the following queues: the data entry 2 queue and the informal/non-standard queue. Is that correct?

Mr Rogers: Again, I might just ask Mr Courtney to discuss that.

Mr Courtney: Yes, they were used on those queues to manage the entry of the preferences from the ballot papers.

Senator RHIANNON: That is what I am trying to follow. Does that mean that a large number of ballots followed the procedure of going to optical computer recognition, then perfect capture, then data entry 2 and were then admitted or excluded for the count? Is that a fair description?

Mr Courtney: That is a fair description, yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Does that mean that such a ballot would have only been seen by one member of the data-entry personnel during the count?

Mr Courtney: If there is perfect capture from the scanning solution, followed then by a second data entry operator—where they are matched together and bearing in mind that those are two separate processes—they then proceed and are admitted, assuming that they are formal, yes.

Mr Rogers: Senator, I have one amendment—something to correct. Being in the presence of the scrutineer is the third agent in that process.

Mr Courtney: Yes, sorry.

Mr Rogers: I just wanted to put that on the table.

Mr Courtney: Perhaps just to embellish on what Mr Rogers is saying, this is all done in the presence of scrutineers so that they can raise an objection if they wish to do so.

Senator RHIANNON: That takes me to my next question, because I understand that restrictions are placed upon the maximum number of scrutineers. Is that correct at that point?

Mr Courtney: Yes. As per your earlier question to Mr Pirani: yes, there are restrictions on a number of scrutineers.

Senator RHIANNON: Does that mean that it is impossible for a candidate scrutineer to watch the large numbers of workstations processing the data entry to queue?

Mr Courtney: My comment to that is that the central managers were very conscious of working with scrutineers to make sure that they felt that they had enough access to the data-entry operators and, indeed, the entire scanning and counting process.

Mr Rogers: I might go further on that, because it is an important point. Mr Courtney will correct me if I am wrong, but we received very few complaints from scrutineers about access or the speed of processing. In fact, when we did, we worked with those scrutineers to adjust the processes we had in place so that they were satisfied that they had the level of access that they needed. There is a practical bit at the end of this. We cannot have 20 people standing around every ballot paper, because there are 15 million ballot papers and we have actually got to get through the count within a reasonable period, but we were very conscious of the need to work very closely with the scrutineers. They were a critical part of that process. Mr Courtney, you might correct me if I am wrong, but there were very few complaints by scrutineers that were not resolved successfully on the spot.

Mr Courtney: That is my understanding, having spoken to all of the managers at the central scrutiny sites across Australia. We were very conscious that this was a new process and were mindful of the limits placed on us by the act. We were very keen to ensure that the scrutineers felt comfortable with what was occurring.

Senator RHIANNON: Is it correct that ballots which pass through the queues without a challenge from a scrutineer or a request from a data entry operator for further assistance would receive no further scrutiny?

Mr Courtney: If they were formal, they matched both the scan and the data entry and there was no objection, they would be admitted.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for helping me understand that. Mr Rogers, I am not disputing what you say about scrutineers, but, from the many comments I have received, people were fairly overwhelmed by it. My guess is that, apart from Mr Courtney and probably some of your other officials, a whole lot of us do not actually understand how all this works. I think it would be good to come back at JSCEM or May estimates to go through this in more detail, but my final question is: you spoke a lot about transparency, and I do think that is incredibly important to ensure that there is public confidence and we do not have some disaster down the track. Can you supply a full breakdown of what ballots were in which queues for the Central Senate Scrutiny for the last election?

Mr Rogers: I will take on notice what information I can provide you. I want to come back at you about one thing. Particularly given issues of time and space, we probably could not have been more transparent. We spoke to the joint standing committee. I think we put a submission in to the joint standing committee about the way we are running the process. It included flow charts, spreadsheets and an explanation of how it is to run. We worked with briefings with the scrutineers that turned up. We provided media briefings. So I absolutely endorse your overall comment about transparency, but I put on the table that I think we met that level of transparency to the extent that we could. I have already said at the JSCEM that we are looking to be even more transparent given more time for the next election. Mr Courtney might correct me again, but there was no point at which in any of the states, as far as I am aware, a scrutineer said: 'Oh, for heaven's sake, stop. The whole thing is not working,' or, 'We're not aware of what's going on.' In fact, we received many compliments from the scrutineers for the way that we designed that process and worked with them in a very efficient way.

Senator Ryan: To add to that: I did go out to the New South Wales centre as I was not allowed to go to the Victorian centre. I can understand that it is very different, but I think that is partly because the process is more transparent since it is actually being done centrally. I think people might compare the data entry under the previous Senate voting system—roughly 1.8 to two per cent of the votes in New South Wales or Victoria. Apart from a few divisional offices where there might be scrutineers, there is actually a lot more scrutiny and a lot more checking, including electronic and, I would argue, if scrutineers are present. In this system, every ballot paper is being centrally counted. Under the old arrangements, most ballot papers were not looked at again by scrutineers or were not seen again.

Mr Rogers: In fact, I was the state manager in New South Wales for the 2007 election. I went to Central Senate Scrutiny, which we ran. There was not one scrutineer present during the entire process. There is now a level of scrutiny beyond any we have had before. I am absolutely endorsing your point, but I am also trying to put on record that we have come a long way with that transparency in any case.

Senator RHIANNON: Mr Pope, did you want to say something?

Mr Pope: I can speak authoritatively from a Victorian Central Senate Scrutiny perspective from the last election. I think we went to great lengths to inform our key stakeholders of the changes. Every state manager had a suite of documents that we send out to all of the candidates, all of the party secretaries, to explain the process. We offered party secretaries inspections of the premises before Central Senate Scrutiny started. We offered them tours of the Central Senate Scrutiny process, we offered the scrutineers briefings, particularly those who turned up on the first few days. In Victoria we had a number of people who turned up on day one and day two. They had a briefing, they had a walk around, and after that most of them decided to leave Central Senate Scrutiny and we only had a couple of parties that had a continual presence. With those scrutineers that remained there constantly, we did go out of our way on a regular basis to ask whether there was anything else they wanted to see and that they should feel free to get up and look at other parts of the process. We know it was new, we know it was different, but in the time that we had available I think we went to great lengths to inform all of the key stakeholders as best as we possibly could.

 

Back to All News