The work of the Australian Electoral Commission in 2010–11 was shaped primarily by the federal election of August 2010. At the same time, we continued to focus throughout the year on our key strategic themes of modernisation, collaboration and investing in our people, and to introduce initiatives or improve existing practices in line with those themes.
Every federal poll places heavy demands on the AEC, but the operating environment of the 2010 election was particularly challenging.
The 2010 federal election was distinguished by several unusual factors:
Any one of these factors would have tested the abilities of the AEC; taken together, they presented us with something approaching a 'perfect storm'.
Between the announcement of the election and polling day, the AEC processed more than 560 000 enrolment transactions. This large number of transactions and tight timeframes created an unprecedented enrolment workload for us. Telephone and email enquiries to the AEC were also well above levels experienced around the 2007 election. To alleviate pressure on our divisional offices, we established a temporary processing cell in the National Office and processing cells in most of our state offices, which worked almost around the clock, and transferred applications between states to deal with the uneven geographic spread of enrolment applications. We completed the enrolment work in good time and with the usual high level of integrity. I thank staff for their energy and enthusiasm, right across the AEC.
The High Court decision, made on 6 August, overturned the legislative provisions for the close of rolls for new electors and electors seeking to update their enrolment details. When the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 was amended in 2006, new voters were given one working day – in this case, to 8pm on Monday 19 July – to lodge their enrolment applications. By finding that amendment unconstitutional, thereby reverting to the previous electoral timeline, the High Court decision extended the close of rolls by one week, meaning that all enrolment applications lodged up to 26 July were valid for the federal election. As a result, the AEC was required to add or update almost 100 000 enrolments just two weeks before polling day. Empowered by a special proclamation by the Governor-General, we printed supplementary voter lists – for the first time since the creation of the AEC – and distributed those to polling places. We also wrote to all affected voters to notify them of their enrolment status.
The AEC also managed a continuing shift in the balance of voting methods at the 2010 election. In total, 19 per cent of votes were cast before polling day, through mobile, postal and pre-poll voting, compared to 15 per cent at the 2007 election. The number of votes cast by postal vote was 16 per cent higher than in the 2007 election. This constituted a clear change in elector behaviour, with implications for future polls.
The election was made more difficult than it should have been by problems with some of our new IT systems, such as the new online facilities for the recruitment and training of temporary polling staff. Immediately after the election, working parties were established to gather and analyse feedback from the divisional, state and national office staff that used the systems. Work is well underway to address staff concerns and improve the systems.
AEC staff, including around 67 000 temporary employees, worked at over 7 500 polling places around Australia on election day. Polling was also conducted in 103 overseas posts and five overseas Australian Defence Force locations. On election night, AEC staff counted around 11 million votes, approximately 600 000 more than on election night in 2007.
The highly professional delivery of the 2010 election, with all its unforeseen events, was possible only through the dedication of AEC staff. Right around the country, our people pulled together as 'one AEC'. I was inspired by their efforts, and thank them wholeheartedly.
One of the disappointments of the electoral administration was the accidental mishandling of some votes in the divisions of Boothby (South Australia) and Flynn (Queensland). Some ballot boxes in those divisions were opened prematurely. As a consequence, the ballot papers in those boxes had to be excluded from the count, meaning that 4 274 House of Representatives votes were eliminated: 2 977 in the Division of Boothby; and 1 297 in the Division of Flynn (made up of 452 from the Blackwater pre-poll voting office and 845 from the Emerald pre-poll voting office – the Emerald total was reported elsewhere by the AEC as 854 votes). While the mishandling of the votes did not alter the outcomes in the seats affected, it is a matter of deep regret to me as Electoral Commissioner that these voters were disenfranchised. In August 2010, I initiated an independent external examination of the mishandling of those votes. The AEC has accepted all the recommendations made in the independent report into the matter, most notably for improvements in the accessibility of polling official training. An improved training package has been developed and will be finalised in early 2011–12.
Post-election evaluations are critical to improving AEC processes and practices. Beginning in September 2010, I invited all staff to complete a survey of their election experiences and to contribute suggestions for change. We also held post-election evaluation conferences in all states and the Northern Territory and in the National Office in October and November 2010. For the first time in the history of the AEC, we also sought feedback from our temporary polling officials, employed on and around polling day.
From our internal discussions, and the stark numbers we saw, it is clear that the nature and volume of workloads during election periods are continuing to change, driven not just by the continual increase in the size of the electorate, but also by changes in elector behaviour. The most apparent of these changes are electors' preferences for, first, electronic interaction with the AEC, and second, voting ahead of polling day. The culmination of this evaluation process was a document, Towards the Next Election: Priorities for Action, which will guide the AEC in its preparations for the next federal election.
The AEC also canvassed these trends and proposals for change in its submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) inquiry into the conduct of the 2010 federal election. The submission highlighted the need for new electoral processes that retain integrity but rely less on manual processes to ensure enrolment levels keep pace with the number of eligible citizens. Among the AEC's recommendations were direct updating of existing elector details and direct enrolment of new electors.
In 2011–12, we will continue to pursue our strategic themes – modernisation, collaboration and investing in our people – to achieve the primary goals set out for the AEC in the Commonwealth Electoral Act; that is, a high integrity electoral roll, fair and credible elections and educating the Australian community about our democratic electoral processes.
It is salutary to note that the number of Australians who did not exercise their franchise in the 2010 election reached 3 million, which means that one in every five Australians eligible to enrol to vote in the election did not participate, or did not record a valid vote. This figure includes those eligible citizens who are not on the electoral roll, those who are on the electoral roll but did not cast a vote, and those who cast a vote that was found to be informal. Building the electoral roll, achieving a higher rate of voting and decreasing the informality rate are vitally important tasks for the AEC.
In February 2011, I released a statement of directions to guide our investment and business strategies for the coming years. The primary goal of these strategies is to place citizens at the centre of the electoral process, by reforming the system to meet their needs and expectations.
Legislative reform is pivotal to arresting the decline in electoral participation. The Electoral Act, which underpins our operations, was last extensively reviewed and updated in 1984. Some legislative changes have already been made by parliament to provide more contemporary tools to assist the AEC with its mandated tasks.
On 14 July 2010, parliament enacted several amendments to the Electoral Act, through the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Pre-poll Voting and Other Measures) Act 2010, the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Modernisation and Other Measures) Act 2010, and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (How-to-Vote Cards and Other Measures) Act 2010. Electors are now able to amend their enrolment details over the Internet, in much the same way as they transact business with other government agencies. The legislative changes also mean that voters can apply online for postal voting papers. In response, the AEC is developing an online postal vote application system, which we plan to have in place for the next election. The reforms also allow for electronic certified lists, rather than paper lists, to be used in elections, providing important environmental benefits.
Collaboration with other government agencies also holds great potential for growing the electoral roll. In 2010–11, the AEC worked closely with the Australian Taxation Office to develop methods of encouraging electors to update their enrolment details. In particular, from July 2011, as the expected 2.4 million plus Australian taxpayers are completing their 2010 income tax returns online using e-tax, those who show a change of residential address will be automatically provided with a hyperlink to the AEC online change of address facility. While not entirely seamless, the conjunction of several related transactions with government in a single online space is sound administrative practice offering considerable elector convenience.
We also began discussing with Australia Post the use of its new online change of address notification service. The AEC currently receives more than 700 000 records each year from Australia Post's mail redirection service. The new, expanded service could allow Australians to submit requests to update their address details for enrolment purposes via Australia Post.
During the year, I convened the Commissioner's Advisory Board on Electoral Research (CABER). CABER comprises seven experts in the field of electoral matters. At its first meeting, in April 2011, the board began to plan a research framework to meet the AEC's modernisation needs.
The AEC also worked with the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority to develop a national school curriculum on civics and citizenship. As part of our efforts, we plan to directly contribute to the delivery of the curriculum by developing online teaching materials for use in schools throughout Australia.
There is no doubt that our pursuit of modernisation and collaboration has created an ambitious work agenda for the AEC. The AEC can only make sound, timely progress towards this goal by making the best possible use of the talents and experience of its staff.
Throughout 2010–11, the AEC continued to implement the Investing in Our People program. The program is better equipping staff for current and future jobs in the AEC, and recognising staff achievements wherever they occur. The results of the employee survey most recently conducted by the Australian Public Service Commission revealed great improvements in the satisfaction levels of AEC staff over the previous 12 months. In particular, the survey showed pleasing results in work–life balance, job satisfaction, leadership, and learning and development.
I am proud of the great efforts made by AEC staff to deliver first-class electoral services to all Australians over the past year. I am also proud of our collective commitment to building a modern electoral system that responds to the needs of electors and improves the exercise of the electoral franchise in Australia. I look forward to reporting on further progress in another 12 months.