SUBJECTS: Electoral reform, AEC, voter identification, Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
PRESENTER: You know, we’re never going to know what happened to those missing votes. We only know that they’re disappearance led to a $21 million re-run for the 2013 Senate election vote here in WA. And it did unprecedented damage to the reputation of the Australian Electoral Commission. Well now a parliamentary inquiry has made a series of recommendations to change Australia’s trust-based system of voting and seek to put it on a more secure future. Tony Smith was the Chairman of that Joint Standing Committee and he joins me now. Tony, good morning to you.
TONY SMITH: Good morning, and good morning to your listeners.
PRESENTER: Tony, can you tell me how forensic was the search for those missing votes?
SMITH: Well, Mick Keelty the former AFP Commissioner went over to Perth and conducted the most forensic inquiry he could. The problem quickly emerged that there were so many lax procedures that literally, the possibilities of where the votes were lost were almost endless through the chain from storage, transport and at the recount centre itself. His findings that it reiterated to us in hearings were… he said to us at a hearing in Canberra… he said the systems simply weren’t good enough for him to establish where the votes were lost from their transport through to the recount centre itself.
PRESENTER: And how did you reach the conclusion that they may indeed have fallen off the back off a truck or been thrown out in the rubbish?
SMITH: Well what he found was – and there were some graphic photos, some of which we have produced in ours – that the storage was insecure, the transport in some circumstances was insecure, and votes were transported on at least occasion in an open truck. At the recount centre itself, he spent a bit of time – and we’ve got a photo of that in the report – votes were stored next to rubbish and the recount centre itself wasn’t always secure. The doors were open because it was hot, so as he said to us in the inquiry, he said, and I’m quoting him here:
I would like to come here and say I conducted a thorough inquiry and my conclusion is that the ballot papers were accidentally thrown out with the rubbish. I cannot honestly say that because the systems were simply not good enough for me to establish that.
So, really this debacle shone a spotlight not just on Western Australian but on systems right throughout Australia. Our inquiry has been more that about just Western Australia, it’s been about the systems, the lack of procedures, and I’ve got to say having inquired into this for the best part of – or more than a year – it happened in Western Australia but it could easily have happened somewhere else and that’s what we’re trying to prevent.
PRESENTER: Tony Smith is the Chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. We’re talking about the AEC, one of the most highly regarded electoral organisations in the world. Tony, it’s a bit like MI5 leaving top secret files on a bus isn’t it?
SMITH: Well the analogies never end, that’s true.
PRESENTER: You’ve heard a few have you?
SMITH: I’ve heard a few and it was at a high cost to the taxpayer - $21 million to re-run that election – and to the confidence in the electoral system generally. Whilst this has been very difficult for the AEC, it’s important that there was a thorough investigation. It’s important that there be major reform there and they are really now in the middle of a renovation rescue. They really are, and what voters want to know is that all the systems are the best they can possibly be and they’re followed. And what we had was a mixture of some good procedures that simply were not followed, and some poor procedures that combined led to this being able to happen.
PRESENTER: Okay. So what’s got to change? What are some of the most important recommendations you’ve made?
SMITH: Well, the AEC accepted all the Keelty Recommendations and we’ve reaffirmed those and they’re really all about safe and secure transport of ballots and there’s a whole range of them that I won’t take you through. We’ve focussed more on the staff training and procedures for staff within the AEC so that there’s a consistency, there’s an accountability, and that polling officials are well trained, they’re certified, and that there are reasonable checks right through the system, and that the state managers who are running each of the states are the best they can be and one of the tough recommendations we’ve made is that they all be reassessed for their suitability in those roles right around Australia.
PRESENTER: You also want to make sure that we take identification, real identification with us to the ballot box because as I understand, in NSW in the last federal election someone managed to vote 15 times in different locations. Another 13 and another 9, and I guess these days we know a handful of votes determine outcomes.
SMITH: Yeah, we’ve made that recommendation. It’s one that the Government members have made, the opposition members didn’t support us on that one, I should say for accuracy. There are two kinds of malicious voting. People voting in the name of someone else or people voting in their own name and what voter identification does of course is it makes it next to impossible for someone to vote in the name of someone else that’s going to impersonate them. And for those that are silly enough to vote more than once, by producing identification it denies them that opportunity to say when they’re followed up ‘it wasn’t me, it must be someone else’. Now interestingly in the Queensland state election they had a full voter identification requirement for the first time and it went incredibly well. There were no complaints. Turnout wasn’t affected, and they had a wide range of forms of identification that could be provided. For those that simply forgot or didn’t bring any along - there was a small minority – none were denied a vote, they just fill out a declaration vote and that information is verified later. We’re really saying at the moment we’ve got a trust system. You walk into vote; you’re asked your full name, your address and you’re asked to declare you haven’t voted anywhere else in the election. And we thing we’ve got to do better than that. We’ve got to make sure every aspect of our electoral system – whether it’s the administration, whether it’s the security around voting – is the best it can be so that voters have full confidence that when they vote, their vote is not lost. That people on the electoral roll are meant to be on the electoral roll and when people who are entitled to vote, only vote once.
PRESENTER: It’s a quarter to nine. You’re listening to Tony Smith, the Chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. We’re talking about that botched count in Western Australia, what it cost, and the consequences of it. And yet, I wouldn’t say there’s a part of me that dies, Tony – that’s an exaggeration. But one of the recommendations is not one of technology particularly; it’s one that we should stop using pencils and start using pens.
SMITH: Yes, it’s been getting a bit of attention that.
SMITH: Well look, it’s interesting. People have complained about the use of pencils because they’ve said well why do we use pencils, why can’t we use pens? Are pencils there for any technical reason? And the answer is that no, they are not. And in fact if you walked in and voted with a pen, as many people do – they have a pen in their top pocket. Those votes are counted, there’s no issue with that. As it turn out the electoral commission at the moment is forced to provide pencils because that’s what the act says and the Act said that back in 1902.
PRESENTER: Okay. There’s one thing about this though that I wonder if it’s indicative of where we’re at, Tony Smith, because we have debates on how we should vote in the future. We often talk about the technology that’s going to be available to us. But we’re also told that there would be huge expense involved. Is that why we don’t seem to be progressing very far beyond the ‘Ok you don’t have to use a pencil now, you can use a pen’ argument?
SMITH: That’s a good question. We spent a lot of time – it’s not in this report – we did an earlier report on electronic voting options. That came out of what happened in Western Australia, because when the votes were lost, one of the things a lot of commentators said was, look, if we had electronic voting you wouldn’t have lost ballot papers, and you wouldn’t go through everything that you’ve been through over there. We looked it, and we looked at world experience and its very attractive when you first consider it, but all of the evidence was that its very expensive and its very risky. In the United States they’ve had electronic voting for a long time, but its machine voting so you still turn up. That seems to be the safest because it’s not over the internet and it’s not as hackable, but they’ve still had lost votes as well. There have been stories in states over there where they might not have lost ballot papers, but machines have not voted property. And in one case a machine didn’t count 4,000 votes. It was the difference in an election. What people really want when they think of electronic voting of course is being able to vote online, and that’s only natural because we have so many transactions in our daily lives online. All of the evidence from around the world was ‘don’t do it’, it’s hackable. There’s only one country does it and that’s Estonia. So whilst it’s attractive, we didn’t feel that at this point it could be relied upon. A lot of people say, well we have banking transactions and we rely on all of those. Of course that’s true, but things go wrong with banking transactions and they’re sorted out and we move on. If something goes wrong with an election, you’d be having it again like you did in Western Australia…
PRESENTER: Like we did in Western Australia… Tony Smith thank you very much for your thoughts on the recommendations and the changes and investigation that suggests the votes may have gone out with the bin or fallen off the back of a truck.
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