Counting votes in Australia’s “most complex election” ever

The beat goes on… (Source: Australian Electoral Commission)

The Australian Electoral Commission has hit back at media claims its ballot counting process is “glacial” in its pace, while defending its staff and explaining the Electoral Act which governs its operations.

In a statement headed “Need for accuracy in democracy, regardless of the century”, Australian Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers today challenged Sydney’s Daily Telegraph’s criticisms of the commission and its staff.

“I strongly refute several assertions made in the Daily Telegraph editorial titled ‘Need for speed in democracy of 21st century‘,” Rogers said in his statement.

“The author’s statement that the count is proceeding ‘at an apparently glacial pace’ is incorrect: the AEC counted over one million votes yesterday (a mix of new votes added to the count and a further check of votes already counted), and this was just one crucial step of the AEC’s conduct of the largest, most complex election in Australia’s history.

“Speeding up the delivery of a final result at the expense of due process could undermine the public’s confidence.”

“I take my role as the electoral commissioner extremely seriously; as an independent statutory officer I protect, defend and support the processes that ensure the will of the Australian people is accurately recorded.

“Anyone who has an issue with the Electoral Act is absolutely able to raise it with the Australian Parliament, and I suggest this would be more productive than criticising the hard work of the many thousands of ordinary Australians who are delivering the election.

“Proper process should be followed; speeding up the delivery of a final result at the expense of due process could undermine the public’s confidence in that very result.

“I have been acutely aware of the perception that the AEC is not making sufficient progress with the count, which is why I have been proactively informing the media and public of the extensive processes that must take place behind the scenes,” he said.

“Votes cast overseas need to be returned to 150 different electorates across the country.”

Rogers addressed specific issues including the speed of the count, the vast distances covered, the impact of overseas voting and the impact of online technology.

“I would like to draw…attention to the following facts,” Rogers said.

Fact: the speed of the AEC’s count is driven by the Electoral Act, the ability of Australians to vote anywhere in Australia (or the world), and the geographic distances involved. Different jurisdictions have different arrangements; many advanced democracies including the UK, USA, Canada, France and Japan generally restrict each voter to a single, specific polling place.

While the adoption of this approach (which would require changing the law) would provide more certainty in estimating ballot papers and staff, I am proud of the fact the Australian system allows all eligible Australians to vote, not just those who happen to be near a designated polling place on election day.

Fact: Australians often travel overseas, and this shouldn’t prevent them from having their say in an election.

Votes cast overseas need to be returned to 150 different electorates across the country. This isn’t an insignificant number either; at the 2013 federal election, over 75 000 Australians cast a vote overseas.

“Electoral Act requires the AEC to wait for up to 13 days after election day to receive any outstanding postal votes.”

Fact: the complex exchange of a very high volume of declaration votes is not new — more than 2.4m declaration votes were exchanged and counted at the 2013 federal election; it is also not because of lost ballot papers in 2013.

The declaration vote exchange is a process required by law and it has been a requirement for many elections.

Fact: The AEC’s website is not ‘frozen’. The AEC is responsible for providing the actual number of ballot papers counted; prediction of election results is, quite rightly, the role of others.

The AEC’s focus — as it should be — is on delivering a reliable and trustworthy count of the ballot papers cast by the Australian public.

Fact: The Electoral Act requires the AEC to wait for up to 13 days after election day to receive any outstanding postal votes.

This is a well-known fact; it is certainly not new and is not something the AEC simply chooses to do of its own free will.

To truncate this period would not only breach the law, it would disenfranchise Australians. Additionally, in very close seats those last few postal votes (even those received on the 13th day) may well decide who wins.

Fact: The AEC conducts a number of activities at the same time as the count, including the transfer of ballot papers to where they need to be counted. To achieve this, the AEC has to rely on postal and courier services as with every other Australian industry.

“Ensuring the transparency and integrity of the electoral process.”

“I genuinely thank the Daily Telegraph for its continuing interest in the conduct of the 2016 federal election,” the commissioner said.

“The role of the media as the ‘fourth estate’ is a critical one in ensuring the transparency and integrity of the electoral process.

“I am more than happy to work with journalists to provide an accurate and factual account of that process,” he added.

This article originally appeared in the Labor Herald.

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