The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has had a bad couple of months. The September election saw the most complex elections in the history of the Senate, resulting in numerous close results. The razor-sharp election result in Western Australia forced a recount, where it was discovered that 1370 votes had gone missing.
The result of the recount saw a different set of candidates elected, and the result was thrown out by the Court of Disputed Returns. Best estimates suggest that the inclusion of the 1370 votes would have produced a one-vote margin of victory, which may have been enough to invalidate the result due to other errors.
Following the decision of the Court of Disputed Returns earlier this month, the Electoral Commissioner, Ed Killesteyn, announced his resignation, effectively leaving immediately. Peter Kramer, the Australian Electoral Officer for Western Australia, also resigned on the same day. At the time, Special Minister of State Michael Ronaldson was quoted as saying that the AEC needed to “regain the confidence” of the community.
This story was followed earlier this week by the appearance of AEC officials before the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, and questioning of those officials regarding the number of voters who had voted more than once. Liberal Senator Dean Smith described the situation as a “very blatant abuse of the process“.
Clive Palmer has jumped into the fray again, throwing wild accusations at the AEC and demanding sweeping changes to electoral administration to suit his own agenda.
A picture is being painted – of an AEC that is behind the times, incompetent and failing in its duties. This ignores the reality, that the AEC is one of the top electoral administration bodies, demonstrating impeccable independence and a very high level of competency when it comes to running elections. It now seems to suit the interests of some conservative politicians to tear down that regime, and all Australians who appreciate the value of independent and competent electoral administration should be alarmed.
An election is a massive project, and electoral commissions are relatively small organisations. The AEC has a head office in Canberra and an office with a small number of staff covering each of the 150 divisions across the country. When an election comes along, the AEC expands its size rapidly, hiring many thousands of workers to work on election day and in the lead-up. These staff are trained, and wherever possible experienced staff are used, but there is only so much that can be done in such circumstances.
Anyone who has worked as a polling clerk or as a scrutineer would have seen AEC staff who are very aware of their responsibilities, and are very serious about meticulously completing every step of the process and ensuring nothing is done in a way that could call the process into question. This isn’t perfect, and issues arise from time to time, but it is remarkable that Australian elections are run as well as they are, when you consider overseas parallels, and the large number of new staff hired in a short period of time. Anyone who has come into contact with AEC staff cannot argue that senior AEC staff haven’t created a culture that instills a sense of responsibility in staff. The AEC understands its important role, and takes it seriously.
The United States is a demonstration of a possible alternative pathway. US elections are administered by a hodge-podge network of local administrators. Processes and budgets vary widely, so voters in wealthier areas get a better level of service and have an easier time voting than those in poorer areas. Because local administrations design their own ballot papers, they tend to be very ugly and difficult to use. This is to say nothing of the impact of those with an explicit political agenda being appointed, or even elected, to run local and state elections.
I do wonder if Clive Palmer and others who rail about the supposed failings of the AEC would prefer that we run elections the way they do in the US, or if they just haven’t thought it through.
In fact, most of the difficulties in Australian electoral administration are not due to the AEC, but due to laws imposed on them by our politicians.
The AEC is quite unusual, in having a structure in which there is a local returning officer employed permanently in each division, and a divisional office in almost every electorate in the country. The AEC has previously proposed abolishing or at least reducing the number of divisional offices, and has been blocked at every turn by the Parliament (including both sides of politics). Following the problems in Western Australia, the plan to restructure the AEC’s organisational structure has emerged again, and could finally overcome opposition in Parliament. Peter Brent has written about this issue extensively.
On the issue of enrolment, the Liberal/National government in the 2000s restricted the timeframe in which you could enrol to vote following the issue of writs, which in practice closed the rolls on the same day the election was called. This provision was eventually thrown out by the High Court.
In the case of Western Australia, the election was only so close because of the group voting ticket system, which is very much set in law. Under another electoral system, preferences would not flow so decisively to a particular candidate, and thus an early break point would not have been so critical to the election result.
Without the group voting ticket system, the AEC would not have been put in the position of first running a statewide Senate recount for the first time in decades, and now running a statewide by-election for the first time in over a century. None of the commentary on the lost 1370 votes seems to have focused on the bizarre, rare nature of the events, and how difficult it would have been for the AEC to pull it off without a hitch. Considering all of that, it’s quite the injustice that senior AEC officials have fallen on their swords.
The AEC has been very effective at staying above politics, and traditionally has not come under attack from the political parties. This has changed in recent times, as the Liberal Party has found it convenient to attack the AEC.
Ed Killesteyn was one of the first figures to come out in support of a system of direct enrolment, under which the AEC would have access to data from other government bodies and, if the person did not actively object, enrol people on the roll without them making an active effort. The AEC had seen the number of eligible Australians not on the roll increase, due to laws that allowed the AEC to directly remove voters where they had evidence that they no longer lived at a previous address, but not to update their details or add a new person to the roll.
New South Wales and Victoria implemented direct enrolment prior to the last round of state elections, and then prior to the 2013 election the Commonwealth joined in. During the JSCEM inquiry into the 2010 federal election, Senator Scott Ryan raised the prospect of the independence of the AEC being threatened by endorsing the direct enrolment proposal. The Liberal Party was furious at the AEC’s attempts to find new ways to bring voters onto the rolls.
Ryan is polite and keeps up a facade of respect for officials, but others can be much worse. The same transcript linked to above includes a lengthy tirade from Bronwyn Bishop, now the Speaker of the House of Representatives, repeatedly interrupting and aggressively questioning AEC officials over the issue of multiple voting and voter impersonation.
Supposed “voter fraud” has been a bugbear of conservative politicians for a number of years. The evidence, however, doesn’t back up claims. Even with close to 2000 voters at the 2013 election voting more than once, the number is a very small proportion of an electorate of well over 13 million voters. Far too few voters cast multiple votes in any one seat to overturn the election result in any lower house seat.
Professor Rodney Smith at the University of Sydney recently completed a report (PDF file, 1.3MB) for the NSW Electoral Commission into the issue of multiple voting and voter identification. He pulls together all of the evidence on multiple voting, demonstrating that the incidences of multiple voting are evenly scattered around the country in a way that makes it very hard to believe that there is a concerted effort to influence the election result by voter impersonation. Evidence from NSW state elections suggests that multiple voting is most common in safe Labor seats. Unless you believe that Labor voters are deceptive enough to commit fraud, but not smart enough to do so in a place where it could make a difference, it seems most likely that these votes were cast accidentally.
This fits with the Acting Commissioner’s claim earlier this week that “the greater majority of those, over 81 per cent” were elderly, had poor literacy skills, or had a “low comprehension of the electoral process”.
Conservative polticians, such as Bronwyn Bishop and Clive Palmer, seem to assume that voter fraud is around every corner, and have a slew of policies to eliminate this supposed fraud. Most of these policies will have the convenient side effect of making it harder for many Australians to successfully enrol and vote, particularly those who are young, recent migrants, poor or Indigenous: all groups who tend to favour Labor and the Greens.
It’s impossible to say how much these concerns are motivated by genuine misunderstanding of the range of these problems, or by a cynical attempt to tinker with the electoral system to give one side an edge. I’m sure both play a role. It’s a lot easier to assume the game is rigged than to believe that you lost a fair fight.
The fact remains that the AEC, which is the keystone of Australia’s system of independent, competent national electoral administration, is under threat. Figures in the federal government will be looking to roll back efforts by the AEC to expand enrolment, while making it harder to vote. The federal government will now be choosing a new Electoral Commissioner, and that choice will be critical in whether the AEC is able to continue in its critical role.
Of course it is always important to improve processes and I’m sure we can always do better. But losing perspective on the nature of the problems could see us greatly damage the best parts of our system.
All Australians who support independent electoral processes that ensure that every Australian has the ability to have their say should be concerned about what happens next with our election laws and the AEC.