AEC Annual Report 2016–17
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Federal elections, by‑elections and referendums

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In 2016–17, the AEC prepared and delivered a double dissolution federal election for both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

It was the largest and, in many ways, most complex election ever held by the AEC and followed significant reforms to the Electoral Act. These included changes to Senate voting arrangements, as well as the introduction of scanning technologies to streamline counting. Electoral systems and processes were also modified following reviews of the 2013 federal election (see Electoral reform program).

2016 federal election

On Sunday 8 May 2016, the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, announced a double dissolution election for Saturday 2 July 2016. The writs for this election were issued on 16 May 2016.

Nominations

Nominations were accepted from 1,625 candidates for a total of 226 vacancies in both houses of Parliament.

The number of candidates for the House of Representatives was 994, while 631 candidates nominated for the Senate. Of these, 1,084 were male candidates, 540 were female candidates and one was unspecified. One candidate for the House of Representatives withdrew their nomination.

Table 4 and Table 5 show the breakdown of nominations by state and territory.

Table 4: House of Representatives nominations by state and territory
State/territory Seats 2016 nominations

New South Wales

47

314

Victoria

37

259

Queensland

30

204

Western Australia

16

86

South Australia

11

72

Tasmania

5

30

Australian Capital Territory

2

9

Northern Territory

2

20

Australia

150

994

Table 5: Senate nominations by state and territory
State/territory Number of vacancies a 2016 nominations

New South Wales

12

151

Victoria

12

116

Queensland

12

122

Western Australia

12

79

South Australia

12

64

Tasmania

12

58

Australian Capital Territory

2

22

Northern Territory

2

19

Australia

76

631

  1. The 2016 federal election was a double dissolution election, so all 76 Senate seats were vacant.

Ballot papers

Immediately after the declaration of nominations, the AEC began printing and distributing the ballot papers in time for early voting to commence on Tuesday 14 June 2016.

Significant reforms introduced with the passage of legislation in March 2016 affected the ballot papers themselves. Senate ballot papers were an extra 10cm deep, to accommodate 12 candidates in some groups rather than six as in previous elections, and the AEC used scanning technologies to assist in recording votes from Senate ballot papers.

The changes to the Electoral Act also allowed – for the first time in the history of federal elections – that AEC-approved logos could be included on ballot papers. Political parties could have their party logo appear adjacent to their candidate names on the House of Representatives ballot paper, and have no more than two logos appear adjacent to their party or group name above the line on the Senate ballot paper.

For the 2016 election, 33 parties registered a logo, 941 different variations of ballot papers were designed and typeset, and over 45 million ballot papers were printed and distributed securely for use across Australia and the world.

Voter services

In addition to voting services provided at polling places on election day, voter services for the 2016 federal election included early voting options, mobile polling, postal voting, overseas voting, telephone voting for blind and low vision voters and particular arrangements for deployed Australian Defence Force personnel.

Early voting services

Changing voter behaviour shows a clear demand for a range of voter services. Pre-poll and postal voting now account for nearly one-third of all votes issued at federal election events. The trend of increased early voting reflects the Australian community’s increasing mobility and desire for flexibility in how and where they cast their vote.

At the 2016 election, more than 4.5 million of the 14.4 million votes cast were early votes.

The most significant factor in early voting volumes has been growth in pre-poll votes, which are cast in-person at an early voting centre or AEC divisional office. The number of such votes issued has increased from 5.9 to 22.1 per cent of all votes issued in the past five federal elections.

Pre-poll voting

There were 649 pre-poll or early voting centres operating across Australia in the 2016 polling period. More than 3 million people cast pre-poll votes at early voting centres and at AEC divisional offices.

This significant uptake of early voting services was likely influenced, in part, by election day falling within the winter school holiday period. Many electors were travelling and away from their home electorate on election day and voted early at pre-poll centres.

Postal voting

Production and delivery of postal vote packages

Delivering postal vote packages to voters before polling day is always a key logistical challenge for the AEC. The packages contain a postal vote certificate envelope, ballot papers and instructions. Voters complete the certificate and return it to the AEC for processing.

A total of 1,439,775 postal vote packages were issued from two production sites (one in Sydney and one in Melbourne), while 163 were issued from overseas posts. The remaining packages were issued from AEC offices.

The majority of postal vote certificates are returned before polling day, although the Electoral Act allows for returns 13 days after election day. Those returned beyond this time cannot be admitted to the count. For 2016:

  • the AEC received 230,116 postal vote certificates before the 13-day deadline
  • a total of 4,930 certificates arrived after the 13-day deadline and could not be admitted.
Processing postal vote applications

In previous elections, divisional office staff manually entered paper-based postal vote applications directly into the Automated Postal Voting Issuing System. In 2016, under an arrangement with Fuji Xerox Document Management Solutions, paper postal vote applications were scanned.

This change made the process faster and more efficient, reducing manual entry errors. Staff could verify the data more easily, identify any issues and transmit the records electronically to the AEC.

Mobile polling

Mobile polling services can be delivered anywhere the Electoral Commissioner determines them necessary. Mobile polling may begin up to 12 days before election day, as well as be conducted on election day (or on a day to which polling is adjourned).

Polling dates for mobile teams varied. They spanned the legislated dates, beginning Monday 20 June 2016, and continued up to and including election day. The AEC website contained information on places, dates and times for mobile polling visits.

During the election period, 557 mobile polling teams including special hospital, remote and other mobile teams, visited almost 3,000 locations by land, air and sea. Of these, 41 remote mobile voting teams visited more than 400 remote locations across Australia.

Overseas voters

While travelling overseas at the time of an election is a valid and sufficient reason for not voting, the AEC tries to provide services to allow as many voters as possible to participate in the electoral process.

For eligible Australians overseas wanting to vote in the 2016 federal election, the AEC provided in-person voting services in 95 overseas posts. The posts functioned as overseas voting centres for up to two weeks before polling day. Major locations included London, Hong Kong, New York, Paris and Shanghai. Alternatively, Australians located overseas could apply for a postal vote to be mailed to their overseas address.

Overseas voters cast declaration votes, which were sealed and returned to the voter’s home division in Australia for scrutiny and counting. In 2016, overseas posts took 71,406 votes, consisting of 70,232 pre-poll votes and 1,174 postal votes.

Some 2,837 overseas postal votes arrived after the 13th day following polling day, which meant they could not be admitted to the count.

Blind and low vision voters

The AEC provides tailored voting services for blind and low vision voters. The telephone voting service, operated by call centre staff, involved a two-step process: registration and voting. This service allowed people to cast their vote in secret and with a relative degree of independence. While the voter’s anonymity was maintained during the voting process, the vote was completed with the assistance of call centre staff.

Registrations opened on 13 June and were available until 12pm on 2 July. Voting via this service began on 14 June and was available until 6pm on polling day.

During this period, 2,175 people registered and 1,998 people used the service to cast their vote.

Australian Defence Force

The AEC and the Australian Defence Force delivered customised postal voting for personnel deployed overseas during the 2016 federal election.

In an agreement with the AEC, the Department of Defence encouraged Defence Force staff to register as general postal voters in the lead up to the election. If not registered, personnel could apply for a postal vote online.

Depending on their location, Defence Force personnel could also vote in person at one of the 95 overseas voting centres. The AEC added the Australian Consulate in Pearl Harbour, Honolulu, United States, as an overseas voting centre to facilitate voting by large numbers of ADF staff deployed to Hawaii.

Polling places on election day

On Saturday 2 July 2016, the AEC established 6,822 static polling places, which were open from 8am to 6pm.

Voters cast 11,815,908 House of Representatives ordinary votes, and 11,819,376 ordinary votes for the Senate.

Other votes cast at polling places on election day were 658,511 (4.62 per cent) House of Representatives absent votes (cast outside the home division but within the state or territory), and 55,102 (0.39 per cent) House of Representatives provisional votes cast by voters who could not be found on the certified list.

Following the close of polls, the AEC admitted 14,262,016 ballot papers to the count for the House of Representatives and 14,406,706 for the Senate. Approximately 80 per cent of the House of Representatives ballot papers were counted on election night.

Table 6: House of Representatives votes by type, 2016 federal election
State/territory Ordinary votes Absent votes Pre-poll votes Postal votes Provisional votes Total

NSW

3,998,745

200,611

141,176

292,461

18,406

4,651,399

Vic.

2,888,562

166,866

159,567

383,140

14,688

3,612,823

Qld

2,266,259

122,707

94,665

311,863

7,457

2,802,951

WA

1,128,162

91,667

58,940

108,669

6,568

1,394,006

SA

913,581

58,512

26,390

82,361

5,327

1,086,171

Tas.

297,001

13,232

11,382

26,765

1,169

349,549

ACT

230,644

3,195

12,482

12,597

1,009

259,927

NT

92,954

1,721

4,874

5,163

478

105,190

Total

11,815,908

658,511

509,476

1,223,019

55,102

14,262,016

Table 7: Senate votes by type, 2016 federal election
State/territory Ordinary votes Absent votes Pre-poll votes Postal votes Provisional votes Total

NSW

4,000,655

218,179

146,716

291,227

48,493

4,705,270

Vic.

2,888,305

182,275

165,691

381,387

36,078

3,653,736

Qld

2,266,749

129,810

97,017

310,163

15,258

2,818,997

WA

1,129,121

100,849

61,226

108,256

14,101

1,413,553

SA

914,035

63,307

27,342

82,065

10,961

1,097,710

Tas.

297,101

13,698

11,582

26,729

2,270

351,380

ACT

230,417

3,283

12,653

12,555

1,613

260,521

NT

92,993

1,764

4,946

5,146

690

105,539

Total

11,819,376

713,165

527,173

1,217,528

129,464

14,406,706

Turnout

Turnout is defined as the number of people who voted in the election (formal and informal votes) as a percentage of eligible enrolled electors. Turnout for the 2016 federal election, 91.01 per cent for the House of Representatives and 91.93 per cent for the Senate, was the lowest recorded since the introduction of compulsory voting in 1924.

While turnout has remained over 90 per cent since compulsory voting was introduced, it has been on a slow downward trend in recent years, mirroring the experience of most developed countries.

Informal voting

For the 2016 federal election, the Senate informality rate was 3.9 per cent, an increase of 1.0 per cent from 2013. The House of Representatives informality rate decreased from 5.9 per cent in 2013 to 5.1 per cent.

Senate informality rose in all states and territories in 2016, though from a low base. Public information campaigns on new voting requirements helped ensure that total informality remained relatively low despite the significant reforms to the Senate voting system.

Table 8: Informal votes by state and territory, 2016 Senate elections
Jurisdiction Formal no. Informal no. Total no. Informal % Swing %

NSW

4,492,197

213,073

4,705,270

4.53

1.21

Vic.

3,500,237

153,499

3,653,736

4.20

0.83

Qld

2,723,166

95,831

2,818,997

3.40

1.24

WA

1,366,182

47,371

1,413,553

3.35

0.85

SA

1,061,165

36,545

1,097,710

3.33

0.68

Tas.

339,159

12,221

351,380

3.48

1.02

ACT

254,767

5,754

260,521

2.21

0.23

NT

102,027

3,512

105,539

3.33

0.66

Total

13,838,900

567,806

14,406,706

3.94

1.01

Table 9: Informal votes by state and territory, 2016 House of Representatives elections
Jurisdiction Formal no. Informal no. Total no. Informal % Swing %

NSW

4,364,320

287,079

4,651,399

6.17

-1.42

Vic.

3,440,654

172,169

3,612,823

4.77

-0.42

Qld

2,671,229

131,722

2,802,951

4.70

-0.43

WA

1,338,337

55,669

1,394,006

3.99

-1.39

SA

1,040,736

45,435

1,086,171

4.18

-0.67

Tas.

335,623

13,926

349,549

3.98

-0.06

ACT

252,742

7,185

259,927

2.76

-1.07

NT

97,460

7,730

105,190

7.35

1.05

Total

13,541,101

720,915

14,262,016

5.05

-0.86

Senate voting

Senate voting for the 2016 federal election changed with the legislative reforms passed on 18 March 2016. Changes impacted both voting above the line and below the line when voting for the Senate. The changes also affected the method and timing of the Senate count.

Ballot papers are classified into either above the line or below the line based on the preferences used for counting. Current legislation gives precedence to preferences expressed below the line. As a result, papers marked both above and below the line are classified as follows:

  • if the below the line preferences are formal, the ballot paper is treated as below the line
  • if the below the line preferences are informal, and the above the line preferences are formal, the ballot paper is treated as above the line
  • if neither set is formal, the ballot paper is deemed informal.

Voter experience

The AEC’s 2016 Voter Survey found that overall there is broad trust and confidence in the work of the AEC and the way elections are managed.

While most people were satisfied with their voting experience in 2016, satisfaction has declined overall from 93 per cent in 2013, to 87 per cent in 2016.

On the question of ‘the length of time you had to wait’, satisfaction fell from 87 per cent in 2013 to 78 per cent in 2016. It appears queuing times were the main driver of the overall decline in satisfaction.

A small number of polling places experienced queues at times during the day or ran short of ballot papers, while the vast majority did not. Possible factors include:

  • the additional time voters took to complete their Senate ballots and the consequent impact of the flow of voters through the polling place
  • while the AEC allocated additional issuing officers to polling places, the time to find and mark an elector’s name on a certified list, explain the new voting requirements, and issue ballot papers also had an impact
  • the layout or size of some polling places was inadequate to cater for the number of voters
  • queues at declaration vote issuing points were caused by the higher than estimated number of declaration votes because election day fell within the school holiday period, and because it took longer to issue them in comparison with ordinary votes.

Vote issuing, management and monitoring

The AEC uses a mix of paper and electronic certified lists in vote issuing and declaration vote scrutiny processes. Electronic certified lists allow AEC staff and polling officials to identify electoral enrolments and electronically mark off names. They also provide other benefits, such as being able to print House of Representatives ballot papers on demand and provide daily statistics on ordinary voting at pre-poll centres.

For the 2016 federal election, 1,544 electronic certified lists were used by various polling teams when issuing ordinary and declaration votes. A 2013 pilot had determined that such lists were most useful in pre-poll voting centres and with mobile teams. Divisions had on average four for use in preliminary scrutiny to mark off absent and pre-poll declaration voters.

Using the electronic lists, and where they were able to connect to the network, AEC staff and polling officials could identify voters and mark off names, updating a central copy of the list. This reduced the risk of both polling official error and multiple voting, and enabled more efficient searching for electors, including by location. Being able to print House of Representatives ballot papers on demand at declaration issuing points and search the national roll, enhances voter franchise by significantly reducing the number of wrongly issued and wrongly declared ballot papers.

Table 10: Above and below the line votes, 2016 Senate elections
Jurisdiction Above the line no. Below the line no. Total no. Above the line % Above the line % swing

NSW

4,249,550

242,647

4,492,197

94.60

-3.30

Vic.

3,314,376

185,861

3,500,237

94.69

-2.64

Qld

2,555,956

167,210

2,723,166

93.86

-3.14

WA

1,290,839

75,343

1,366,182

94.49

-1.68

SA

970,934

90,231

1,061,165

91.50

-1.97

Tas.

243,774

95,385

339,159

71.88

-17.78

ACT

216,086

38,681

254,767

84.82

4.69

NT

93,277

8,750

102,027

91.42

-0.47

Total

12,934,792

904,108

13,838,900

93.47

-3.02

A virtual approach to better polling

A critical part of preparing for an election is estimating the personnel and materials required in polling places to service the number of expected voters. While the AEC has computer systems that help with forecasting based on voter estimates, the 2016 federal election evaluation identified a need for improvement.

All aspects of polling place activity will be tested and recorded in a simulated polling exercise
All aspects of polling place activity will be tested and recorded in a simulated polling exercise

The AEC has engaged the Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation at Deakin University – experts in time and motion studies and modelling – to help test and record aspects of polling place activity.

The project will be conducted in Geelong, Victoria over a four-week period in July 2017, and will simulate various polling place scenarios, including:

  • polling place set up and voter flow measuring the time it takes electors to move through a polling place and complete ballot papers
  • issuing ordinary and declaration votes using paper certified lists, division finders and electronic certified lists
  • election night scrutinies such as the time spent unfolding, sorting and then counting ballot papers.

The data will be used to generate computer-based models to help the AEC more accurately predict resource requirements for materials and personnel at individual polling stations in the future, with a view to improving the voter experience.

Why does the election count take so long?

The speed of an election count is driven by the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, not the AEC. The Electoral Act requires the AEC to follow extensive processes during the count to ensure the will of the Australian people is accurately recorded. This means the AEC is bound by law to undertake these processes, some of which cannot be completed until 13 days after an election has been held.

So how does the count work?

Most people don’t realise that under Australia’s preferential voting system, votes get counted several times at a federal election. Counting preferences involves a reiterative process of distributing and counting.

The Electoral Act prohibits the start of counting before the polls close at 6pm on polling day. At this point, indicative counts are undertaken to provide information to the public and candidates. The first count involves a simple count of only the first preferences of the House of Representatives ballot papers. A second count is done based on the two candidates expected to have the most votes. The final counting on polling night is the count of Senate first preferences on the ballot papers. But these counts are only the beginning.

Ballot papers from each polling place are then sent to central locations in each electorate, known as outposted centres. At each centre, the House of Representatives ballot papers are carefully counted again to produce the final results. For the 2016 federal election, more than 2.4 million votes had to be relocated back to their home electorates. In the case of Senate ballot papers, they must be sent first to outposted centres and then onto a central site in each capital where they get scanned and counted. In 2016, this process involved moving 14.4 million ballot papers.

The Electoral Act also prescribes processes for managing the election, which sometimes dictates the timing of events. For example, mobile polling teams must return and scan certified lists before the postal vote count can start. This ensures a person does not vote twice. There are also votes that come through the post as well as those returned from overseas. The AEC must wait 13 days for all votes to arrive in their respective electorates. In the case of a close seat, a result may not be available until after this time. Any votes received after the 13 days are not counted towards the results.

The final step is the full distribution of preferences. Each time there is a distribution, the candidate with the least votes at the end of the distribution will have their votes reallocated for the next distribution according to the next preference on each ballot paper. To ensure the voters’ preferences are applied, the AEC goes through these distributions multiple times until a single candidate is elected for the House of Representatives. For the Senate, a count system distributes the preferences until the appropriate number of candidates is elected. Where figures are very close between candidates, it may automatically trigger, or the AEC may call for, a full recount.

The Australian electoral system gives voters great scope to use preferences to choose their candidates, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Voters also have a broad choice in how or where to cast their votes, including voting outside their home division or overseas. This level of choice, combined with the complex preferential voting systems, means that counting is both complicated and time consuming.

While election outcomes can take time before they are known, the AEC is proud to administer a system that allows all eligible Australians to vote in a federal election, not just those near their designated polling place, and one which preserves the integrity of both the electoral process and the results.

Declaration voting

The March 2016 amendments to the Electoral Act, required the AEC to change the way it handled declaration votes. Declaration vote ballot boxes were not opened and reconciled at the polling place as had occurred at previous elections. They remained sealed for transport to an outposted centre and stored securely.

At the 2016 federal election, around 18 per cent of counted votes were declaration votes, with the remaining 82 per cent ordinary votes cast at polling places or pre-poll voting centres. More than three million declaration votes were issued and over 2.5 million were counted.

Declaration votes take longer to count as they must undergo eligibility checks before the ballot papers can be removed from the envelopes and counted.

Voter advice letters

Where declaration votes are issued but not counted, the AEC notifies the voter by letter. Often it is because the elector is not correctly enrolled. It may also be that a postal vote has not been completed before the close of polling or is not returned, or that the declaration has not been properly made (for example a signature was not provided).

From September 2016, voter advice letters were sent to 342,073 voters advising that their declaration vote had been either rejected or only partially admitted.

Multiple voter and non-voter processing

The AEC is committed to upholding and enforcing the compulsory voting system and the principle of ‘one person, one vote’, by ensuring a thorough and robust system for addressing possible multiple voting and non-voting. This includes elector education and engagement.

For the 2016 federal election, the AEC wrote to electors with a history of alleged non-voting or multiple voting, to remind them of their voting obligations. Following the close of rolls, letters were sent to:

  • 36,830 electors whose records showed they failed to vote at the previous two elections (2010 and 2013) and failed to respond to non-voter notices
  • 4,627 electors whose records showed they were marked off the roll more than once at the 2013 federal election and were subsequently referred to the Australian Federal Police.2

The AEC has comprehensive systems in place to identify multiple voters. These include an initial check to identify administrative or polling official error. These cases are then eliminated from further investigation.

Following the 2016 federal election, AEC employees examined the apparent multiple voting data and sent letters to 18,343 voters whose names appeared to have been marked off the electoral roll more than once. These letters asked voters when and where they voted.

Where voters did not respond, the AEC issued a follow-up round of letters to 7,141 apparent multiple voters.

The AEC cannot prosecute multiple voting offences, but works closely with the Australian Federal Police and the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions on cases of possible multiple voting.

Following the 2016 election, the AEC and the Federal Police worked together to institute a process for referring apparent multiple voting cases to the police.

During the 2016 federal election, 557 mobile polling teams visited almost 3,000 locations by road, air and sea

In July 2016, 42 cases of apparent multiple voting in the Division of Herbert were referred. The Federal Police determined that there was a distinct absence of evidence on behalf of any individuals to intentionally vote on multiple occasions.

In December 2016, the Federal Police and the AEC conducted a joint assessment process, after which the AEC formally referred 76 additional cases from around Australia to the Federal Police for further investigation. As at 30 June 2017, no outcomes have been reported.

The AEC issues ‘apparent failure to vote’ notices to electors whose names have not been marked off the electoral roll. Those sent a notice have an opportunity to provide the AEC with a valid and sufficient reason for failing to vote (for example an unforeseen medical emergency), or, if they claim that they did vote, to provide information on the time and location.

In September 2016, the AEC sent 969,586 notices to apparent non-voters. This is a 46 per cent increase on 2013, when 663,633 notices were sent. It also corresponds with the lower overall voter turnout for the 2016 federal election. The increase has cost and workload implications for the AEC around mailing, assessment and prosecution processes.

By-elections and referendums

No other federal elections (including by-elections) or referendums were delivered during 2016–17.

Electoral reform program

Closing the loop on the Keelty reforms

Following the 2013 federal election, there was an extensive review of election processes. This led to a series of recommendations from the Keelty report, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) and internal AEC analysis. Collectively, these recommendations presented a substantial body of work in electoral reform, which the AEC has been progressively implementing. Since 2013, the AEC has trialled a range of Keelty-related initiatives in by-elections (Griffith, Canning and North Sydney), which were successively refined and revised for implementation at the 2016 federal election.

These included:

  • national consistency through new and reviewed policies, standard operating procedures, election delivery planning and other templates, guidance and tools
  • improved contracting framework, logistics and materials management
  • improved recruitment and training to support the professionalism of the permanent and temporary workforce
  • new ballot paper handling processes from printing to authorised destruction
  • polling official training emphasising ballot paper principles, handling and security practices
  • clear identification of staff and scrutineers at polling places and scrutiny centres
  • character checks for selected and supervisory temporary election staff
  • improved waste management at polling centres and outposted centres.

In response to the Keelty report in particular, the AEC has:

  • created new roles of Divisional Materials Manager and Supervising Divisional Materials Manager based in outposted centres to ensure the safe custody of ballot papers, from the receipt of ballot papers into a division through to the final packaging and despatch of ballot papers to long-term storage
  • assigned ballot box guards at every polling place and pre-poll voting centre
  • increased the number of polling place liaison officers assigned to monitor the operation of polling places on election day
  • created a new role of early voting liaison officers to monitor the operations of mobile polling teams and pre-poll voting centres
  • revised procedures for officers-in-charge.

Another fundamental theme of the Keelty findings was the proper handling and management of ballot paper security. In this area, the AEC has made significant strides with enhanced materials handling and substantially strengthened procedures. The main response has been the development of ballot paper principles and a ballot paper handling policy. To ensure the integrity demanded by these principles and policy, the AEC introduced a range of new forms and materials for the 2016 federal election. Post-election evaluation has provided positive feedback about these forms and materials. Even so, there have been some additional opportunities identified where further improvements can be made.

The Keelty report also highlighted a range of workforce-related risks and the need for the AEC to examine workforce culture and capability to improve performance and accountability. Previous observations from JSCEM and the ANAO report into training, recruitment and workforce planning, recommended the AEC change the way it sources, selects and manages its temporary election workforce.

This has been reinforced by the AEC’s experience at the 2016 election, and the continuing expectation that the AEC manage increasing complexity and workload at each federal election.

Increasingly, the AEC’s regular Australian Public Service workforce and temporary election workforce are required to work longer hours to deliver each election. The AEC is continuing to address these issues. For example, the AEC introduced fundamental changes to training for temporary and permanent staff for the 2016 federal election. The election marked the beginning of the process to address this. Ideally, the AEC will be able to actively engage with the temporary election workforce, especially senior polling officials, for ongoing training and development purposes throughout the electoral cycle.

The AEC acknowledges that to fully address the expectations outlined above, the methodologies underpinning recruitment, induction and performance management of temporary staff across the employment lifecycle, including its human resource systems, need to change. This continues to be an area of interest for future projects.

Other general reforms implemented by the AEC for the 2016 federal election included:

  • lowering the threshold for allocating a second-in-charge for all ordinary polling places expecting to issue more than 600 ordinary votes. The intent was to provide additional capacity and support, particularly at the beginning and end of election day and additional capacity to meet compliance with enhanced operational policy and procedures
  • lowering the thresholds at which both ordinary issuing and declaration voting issuing officers were allocated for ordinary polling places. The intent was to provide more capacity to deal with the additional time it was expected to take for electors to complete their Senate vote in accordance with the new legislation
  • allocating an additional inquiry officer for all polling places. The intent was to provide additional capacity to deal with elector enquiries about the new Senate voting system
  • transparency and improved election service delivery, publishing the 2016 Federal Election Service Plan on the AEC website.

Senate reform program

At previous elections, voters had the option to vote above the line, simply marking ‘1’ next to the party of their choice and allowing parties to direct their preferences via group voting tickets. Under the Senate reform, voters at the 2016 federal election were asked to nominate a minimum of six preferences above or 12 preferences below the line. The removal of group voting tickets presented a considerably more complex count to conduct.

Under the previous system, approximately 97 per cent of ballot papers were cast above the line, which were easily entered into the AEC count system. This system would then distribute preferences in accordance with a group voting ticket. Before reform, less than half a million (3 per cent) Senate ballot papers contained below the line votes, and preferences had to be manually entered. Because of the legislative changes, data entry was needed for all 14.4 million Senate ballot papers.

In just over three months, the AEC developed, tested, certified and operationalised a new end-to-end solution to count and distribute Senate preferences. The semi-automated process, using scanning and image recognition technology to capture preferences, was developed with a contractor – Fuji Xerox Document Management Services.

After election day, Senate ballot papers were progressively despatched to a central site in the capital city of each state and territory. Senate ballot papers were scanned to capture an image of everything contained on the ballot paper, except the watermark. Preferences were captured using optical character recognition and verified by an operator.

Election readiness framework

Since the 2013 federal election, the AEC has fundamentally reshaped its planning for election delivery by implementing an election readiness framework. This enables the AEC to monitor its state of readiness and the activities necessary to successfully deliver the event, whenever it occurs.

Following an election, the AEC begins a new cycle of evaluation and preparations for the next electoral event. Post-election evaluation identifies where the AEC needs to change technology, policies and procedures to improve election delivery and services. If legislative changes occur, these are also implemented.

The framework is a risk-based election planning strategy, which seeks to balance the level of readiness with the cost of advancing that readiness and the level of risk if an election is unexpectedly called early. It supports coordinated action across the AEC to prepare for a federal electoral event that can occur within as little as 33 days from the issue of the writs. It includes being ready for a writ to be issued at a certain date (the Directed Level of Election Readiness), as well as actions to be completed between the return of the writs from the previous election and the issue of the writs for the next election. These actions are detailed in the Election Ready Road Map – a strategic planning document that underpins the election readiness framework.

The framework is also supported by other activities. For the 2016 federal election, the AEC ran an election readiness program that involved 180 staff in scenario-based learning to go through some of the live aspects of conducting federal elections.

Senate scanning solution wins award

The AEC’s Senate scanning solution won an innovation award at the 2016 Australian Information Industry Association’s iAwards ACT. This is an annual event that seeks to ‘discover, recognise and reward the technology innovations that have the potential to, or are already having a positive impact on the community’.

The award, received in the category of Public Sector and Government Markets, earned the AEC project an entry in the national iAwards to be held in Melbourne in late 2017.

AEC First Assistant Commissioner, Tim Courtney and Acting Assistant Commissioner Information Technology Branch, David Lang, receive the innovation award on behalf of the AEC
AEC First Assistant Commissioner, Tim Courtney and Acting Assistant Commissioner Information Technology Branch, David Lang, receive the innovation award on behalf of the AEC

The new end-to-end solution to count and distribute Senate preferences used scanning and image recognition technology to capture voter preferences.

The process required moving 14.4 million ballot papers, in over 34,000 transport containers, from over 6,000 polling places, via the divisional outposted centre, to a central site in each state and territory. At these sites, over 800 staff operating two shifts, seven days a week, scanned and verified preferences for 631 candidates. This required staff to scan 14,406,706 ballot papers and operators to enter these into the count system, to sort 101,535,258 preferences.

2016 federal election evaluation

The road ahead – learnings from the 2016 federal election

The AEC transitioned into the ‘evaluate and learn’ phase of its election readiness framework following the 2016 federal election.

In August 2016, it convened an evaluation team to review the event and recommend improvements for future elections.

The evaluation team comprised specialist staff from the AEC’s national office, with support from subject matter experts in state and divisional offices, including Divisional Returning Officers, Operations Managers and other divisional office staff. The team was overseen by an Evaluation Board that reported to the Executive Leadership Team. The evaluation team analysed data and developed a set of draft lessons learned.

Among the key challenges identified was the task of recruiting 75,000 temporary staff to assist with the election delivery; longer working hours for staff; manual ballot paper process and systems; and a lack of access to reliable, real time logistical information to enable the right materials to be in the right place at the right time.

The evaluation team reported eight key lessons to be learned from the 2016 election process:

  • implement a design process
  • ensure roles are clearly defined
  • review baseline activities in terms of cost, time and risk
  • enhance and integrate the planning framework
  • reinforce AEC values and behaviours
  • design an accountability, responsibility and authority hierarchy
  • enhance information management and communication practices
  • enhance capability.

Figure 4: 2016 federal election evaluation key lessons

Figure 4: 2016 federal election evaluation key lessons

The team also recommended a series of enhancements to drive improvements by either the next electoral cycle or over multiple electoral cycles.

The Executive Leadership Team subsequently endorsed four areas of focus in preparation for the 2018–19 federal election:

  • consolidate and coordinate
  • training and recruitment
  • communication and information management
  • planning.

AEC work priorities

The 2016 federal election evaluation project identified 13 cross-agency priority activities to be applied during the ‘implement change’ phase of the election readiness framework. These involved broad-ranging enhancements to the planning and delivery of elections, including improvements to enrolment services, the supply of election materials, workforce recruitment and training, and polling place operation.

Scoping and planning for these projects began in early 2017, with many progressing to implementation stage by the end of 2016–17.

AEC focus areas in preparation for election readiness

Election readiness – implement change phase

The AEC needs to be ready to successfully conduct elections whenever they arise. Although there is a generic three-year federal electoral cycle, under legislation elections can come at very short notice, sometimes in as little as 33 days.

Between elections, the AEC must finalise the previous election and start preparing for the next one, as well as consider any broader government initiatives. These activities nearly always mean implementing changes to key policies, procedures and supporting technologies.

‘Implement change’ is the second phase of the AEC’s election readiness framework.

During this phase, the AEC aims to:

  • review and prioritise bodies of work identified in the ‘evaluate and learn’ phase of the cycle
  • begin work on high priority improvements across the agency
  • implement and communicate changes to our operating environment, especially when putting in place new or revised policies and procedures.

To implement change, the AEC focuses on delivering targeted enhancements. This minimises the impact of change on both our staff and the Australian voter.

  1. Electors excluded from the mailing included those who were 70 years or older as at 1 July 2016; silent electors; registered eligible overseas electors (and kin), registered itinerant electors, registered Antarctic electors and electors with an overseas postal address.
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