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Senate Estimates: Finance and Public Administration Committee (AEC)

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 2 Dec 2013

Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee
Australian Electoral Commission

Senator RHIANNON: There were more candidates and parties in this election. Does that mean that your staff were busier compared with previous elections in most aspects of their work, in addition to counting ballot papers? If your staff were busier, did you have adequate resources to manage this additional workload?

Mr Killesteyn : We have set records all over the place as far as ballot papers printed and counted and staffing. We were also preparing for a referendum at the same time. It was an extraordinarily busy time. In terms of resourcing, I do not believe that there is an issue with the financial resourcing. We are an agency that is well funded as far as conducting elections is concerned. Every government has always been appropriate with the resourcing for elections. Where the difficulties often arise is in finding the relevant experienced and quality people. We were confronted this time around, because of the prospect of conducting a referendum, with finding 70,000 individuals to conduct both an election and a referendum for one day. That task is always a huge challenge-finding them, training them and all those sorts of things. Then there are the range of contractors that are involved in moving ballot material. Then there is the printing of ballot materials. Nominations close on a Thursday. By the Monday we have to have several million ballot papers distributed across Australia to enable early voting to start. There is a very contracted timeframe involved in all of this process. We are given a minimum of 33 days.

Senator RHIANNON: Have lessons been drawn from that? Does more training need to be given to people well out from an election so that you have more experienced staff?
Mr Killesteyn : It is a range of things. It is training but it is also moving to efficient systems. The fact that we have had technology applied to the pre-election period in terms of the close of rolls, notwithstanding that we have set records across all factors, enabled us to do 85 per cent of the 670,000-odd enrolment transactions that we carried out in the close of rolls period online. We had 1.3 million applications for postal votes. We would not have survived had we not introduced an online postal vote application system, which lightened the load by some 370,00. You have to not only deal with the efficiency and effectiveness of using modern technology but also deal with the people challenges.

Senator RHIANNON: You said that the online aspect lightened your load. But does the three weeks of pre-polling add to your burden? Is that why you had to go from the Thursday-
Mr Killesteyn : That is set in the law. The law requires that pre-polling opens on the Monday or the Tuesday-currently Tuesday-after nominations close.

Senator RHIANNON: For how many elections have we had effectively three weeks of pre-polling, by the way?
Mr Killesteyn : That has been in place for quite some time.

Senator RHIANNON: Is that putting you under pressure? There has clearly been an expansion in the number of candidates and the number of parties and there are now different ways of voting. And you have inexperienced staff. Are those other factors putting you under pressure?
Mr Killesteyn : There is a point at which the volumes are challenging the AEC. I would not like to necessarily point to the pre-poll period only. It is quite clear-and no doubt the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters will look at this-that there is still a considerable growth in the number of people who want to vote early. That is a facility that is available under the act and it is a demand that we have to try and meet.

Senator RHIANNON: I want to move on to features of the Senate counting system. I have two questions. I find the counting system very complex, so I think it best to explain what I understand in case that I have made an incorrect assumption in my questions.
Mr Killesteyn : Ms Neilson will be listening very carefully.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay. I understand that when a candidate is elected their votes are reduced in value by the transfer value and passed on as a surplus. If some of those votes have already been used to elect another candidate, they already have the transfer value. However, those votes are assumed to be of the same value as the full value votes when calculating a new transfer value, which has the effect of increasing the value of votes that have been used to elect more than one candidate and reducing the value of votes that have only elected one candidate. My first question is: would it be fairer to shift to a system in which votes that have elected more than one candidate have the transfer values multiplied together so that a ballot paper that has elected two members of parliament is reduced to the transfer values of those two candidates multiplied together? What I am saying is that the transfer values are both less than one. Multiplying them together would have the effect of appropriately reducing the transfer value. From what I can see-and I gave that introduction to check that I was correct-the current system artificially inflates the value of votes through an undeserved new transfer value.

Ms Neilson : I do not think that is quite the way the transfer-value system works. A vote starts out with a value of one. If it is then used to elect someone, the transfer value itself reduces by the amount of that vote that was used to elect the last person, so the transfer values become less as that same ballot paper is used to elect subsequent senators. The concept that the transfer values would increase is not correct.

Senator RHIANNON: But if some of those votes have already been used to elect another candidate, is that not where we have that complexity?
Ms Neilson : The way that they would be used to elect more than one candidate is if-the quota for election is about 1/7th of the number of formal first preferences in the count. If the number of ballot papers that have been allocated to a candidate to elect them is more than that quota, then a fractional value is given to all of the ballot papers and they are then transferred on to the remaining candidates, so all of the ballot papers are moved on at a reduced transfer value. We do not pick up a bundle of ballot papers and say those ballot papers have been used to elect that candidate so are not used again. They continue on through the count at reduced values each time they are used to contribute to the election of someone.

Senator RHIANNON: But I thought the votes were assumed to be the same value as the full value of votes when calculating the new transfer vote.
Ms Neilson : No, only if they have not been used to elect anyone yet.

Senator RHIANNON: I will go back and look at that again; thank you. I find that one challenging. Has the AEC considered the impact of requiring voter ID could have in terms of additional costs or in terms of lengthier queues forcing voters to wait longer before voting?
Mr Killesteyn : No.

Senator RHIANNON: You have not considered it? Is that because you do not think it is necessary or is it because you just have not had time?
Mr Killesteyn : No. We have not commissioned any particular research on it at this stage. I understand that if it is something the minister has indicated would be a matter for the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, we would support the joint standing committee if it asks us details about such impacts.

Senator RHIANNON: Has the AEC collected information on the new mechanisms that have allowed voters to enrol for the first time completely online and, specifically, how popular they have been and if they have caused any problems?
Mr Killesteyn : As I said in my opening remarks, of all transactions done during the close-of-rolls period-which were 670,000-85 per cent of those conducted online, people enrolling for the first time and also people updating their details online, it is clear that there is a high popularity with conducting government transactions online. I do not think we are any different from any other organisation, whether that is government or the private sector.

Senator RHIANNON: Have you looked at the issue of fraud with regard to people enrolling online and people enrolling in the usual way?
Mr Killesteyn : The fact that a person can enrol or update their details online does not change any of the checks and balances that we do for the enrolment transaction. All of the requirements that are set out in the Commonwealth Electoral Act for the purposes of production of identity are carried out irrespective of whether it is an online transaction or a paper transaction. Indeed, there are subsequent-how shall I say?-further checks in relation to enrolment. Again, irrespective of whether it is paper or online, we will check, for example, that the address that has been used is a proper address. We have a national address register, which is probably one of the best in Australia in terms of telling us about residential addresses. We have checks in relation to the number of people who are registering at any particular address, so we can see whether that number is higher than what might be reasonable. In relation to online transactions, we have also been cognisant of looking for what might be excessive numbers of transactions coming from a small number of internet protocol addresses. So we have quite a significant set of checks and balances in place.

Senator RHIANNON: Was anything detected?
Mr Killesteyn : No.
Senator RHIANNON: There were reports during the election campaign about a number of political parties having the same person as their registered officer. Is this something that you have examined?
Mr Pirani : I was aware that there was talk about a person being with two parties, but I will need to take that on notice. There was one individual who was alleged to have been the registered officer for two political parties, but that is the only one that I am aware of.

Senator RHIANNON: And that is permissible under the law?
Mr Pirani : There is nothing in the act to prevent that.
Senator RHIANNON: Is it something you have examined as to whether it is problematic?
Mr Pirani : At this stage we have not examined it. We are not aware of a particular problem. But that may be something that JSCEM might want to have a look at.

Senator RHIANNON: Have booth workers reported disputes at some polling booths when some parties have rolled out huge rolls of plastic and literally surrounded the polling booth, leaving no space for people to even put up individual posters? Concerns have been raised with me that this could lead to quite sharp disputes. Is this something you have given consideration to? Do you think it would be more democratic and a way to reduce conflict to have limits on the size of one large poster?
Mr Pirani : We have no powers outside six metres from the entrance to a polling booth. What goes on in a polling place is different to what goes on in a polling booth. Under section 340 of the act we have powers in relation to the activity and conduct in relation to polling booths, and within six metres of the entrance to polling booths. Otherwise, we have no powers.

Senator RHIANNON: I understand about the powers and the place in the booth. I have learnt that differentiation. But I was asking: have you given consideration to this issue? I understand that periodically reports are made to your people about this problem.
Mr Killesteyn : It is not something we have been giving consideration to. If it is a matter the joint standing committee wants to take up, we will certainly provide information to them as best we can about what events happen at polling places.
CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, thank you very much for your contribution.



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