Commissioner's review

Portrait of Tom Rogers the Australian Electoral Commissioner

We’ve been busy. The AEC continued to experience significant change and operational turbulence during this year.

A combination of unique external events, largely centered on the operation of section 44 of the Australian Constitution, created a challenging operational environment and tested our organisational agility. AEC staff responded to the challenge, and the agency continued to evolve, improve procedures, and consistently deliver successful electoral events.

The last 12 months have been one of the busiest periods in the agency’s history. Even though this was not a federal election year, the AEC delivered three by-elections, seven Senate special counts, and five redistributions. We were also involved in six public Parliamentary committee inquiries, and completed one of the largest close of rolls in the history of our agency for the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey.

As evidenced throughout the year, a dynamic political situation can create a speculative electoral environment. Accordingly, as well as ensuring our preparedness for the next federal election, it was critical for the AEC to have robust planning principles in place to enable the agency to adapt as circumstances continued to evolve.

Complexity

The AEC operates within a highly complex environment. Federal elections and by-elections are large events involving compulsory citizen attendance, strictly regulated behaviour by political parties, and the short notice recruitment, training and deployment of a large temporary workforce. This innate complexity is further rendered by ever evolving citizen expectations. Australian citizens demand both surety and speed from the electoral process, and media commentary (and social media activity) is increasingly focused on key metrics such as the speed of the count. In brief, given their experiences with technology in other areas of society, citizens have developed digital expectations from what is a mostly analogue process.

High-profile local and international cyber security incidents have highlighted the potential for catastrophic failure if electoral processes and systems aren’t carefully controlled and monitored. Maintaining pace is made more challenging by highly prescriptive and somewhat antiquated legislation and ageing IT systems. The AEC has devoted a significant amount of resources and focus on this matter over the last 12 months. In partnership with other relevant security agencies, and state and territory electoral commissions, we have continued to analyse the security situation, implement risk mitigation strategies, and prepare for the future of an evolving cyber security environment.

Against this backdrop, the AEC maintains an ongoing and overwhelming focus on being ready to deliver efficient and high integrity electoral events. Implementing changes to electoral process following the 2016 federal election evaluation and mobilising to maintain election readiness is, in itself, a considerable workload. We also delivered three by-elections and seven Senate special counts triggered by parliamentary resignations. Most of these resignations resulted from High Court decisions on eligibility requirements under section 44 of the Constitution. When a further four Members of Parliament resigned in May 2018 due to eligibility requirements, the Government progressed regulations enshrining changes to the nomination process for people wishing to stand as candidates. The AEC implemented these changes, including a qualification checklist, to help candidates provide information on their eligibility to be elected to Parliament having regard to section 44 of the Constitution.

The Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey, a unique event, showcased our ability to swiftly process a huge volume of enrolments at short notice. During the two weeks of close of rolls we processed almost one million enrolments, vastly exceeding volumes at the 2016 federal election. More than 55,000 calls to the AEC hotline, three million plus website visits, thousands of emails and hundreds of social media interactions were other features of that unique event.

Australia now has the largest and most complete Commonwealth Electoral Roll since Federation, with more than 16 million Australians enrolled to vote.

The AEC has managed an intense workload this year. While we have been agile in our response to implement the required legislative changes and conduct a number of events and redistributions, non-election resourcing remains tight. We continue to work with our key stakeholders to raise awareness of the risks inherent in under investment in the electoral process.

Meeting our challenges

Delivering high quality electoral events

While this year’s many challenges tested our agility, they also provided us with an opportunity to test and implement changes to improve voter experience before the next federal election.

Our early planning to complete the largest close of rolls in agency history for the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey, allowed us to provide invaluable support to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. As a result of our ongoing focus on roll growth and roll integrity, Australia now has the largest and most complete Commonwealth Electoral Roll since Federation, with more than 16 million Australians enrolled to vote.

For the New England by-election on 2 December 2017 we delivered election results in record time—the poll was declared and the writ returned in just four days. Close on its heels, the Bennelong by-election on 16 December created an intense end of year workload. AEC staff worked through the Christmas period to quickly declare the poll and return the writ. We conducted a further by-election in Batman on 17 March 2018 and produced another incredibly fast turnaround to declare the poll. This succession of by-elections allowed us to collect data on polling place operations, and tested our new data driven approach to forecasting polling place resources.

On 24 May the Speaker of the House of Representatives advised Parliament that the proposed polling day for by-elections in the federal electoral divisions of Braddon, Fremantle, Longman, Mayo and Perth would be 28 July 2018. This resulted in the largest number of by-elections conducted at any one point in time since Federation. We have also implemented regulatory changes to the nominations process for candidates in time for the upcoming by-elections.

In 2017–18 we also delivered 1300 industrial and commercial elections, which was 500 more than in 2016–17.

Continuous improvement

We are continuously improving the way we do business to ensure we meet community and stakeholder expectations. Part of this has involved working with key stakeholders such as the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) on the complexities of electoral processes and confirming the need to modernise our overall approach.

Additional mid-year funding allowed us to begin a business case to modernise the AEC’s election and roll management systems. We also focused on more effective supply chain management to create further efficiencies in polling places.

We are implementing an organisational design review to ensure we have the necessary capability and agility to effectively deliver our core functions in a changing environment and to set us up for the future.

We will continue to ensure electoral communication is authorised in accordance with the new rules which came into effect in March. These extend authorisation requirements to contemporary communications channels such as online platforms, bulk text messages and robocalls.

Our commitment to cyber security also continues and we have significantly increased our focus in this area. We are working with the Australian Cyber Security Centre on a cyber security review of electoral processes and we are participating in a cyber security health check along with our colleagues in the Electoral Council of Australia and New Zealand (ECANZ).

Progress in modernising our systems, addressing temporary workforce challenges and overly prescriptive parts of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (the Electoral Act), are reviewed every six months by JSCEM. We have been able to finance most of these modernisation initiatives within our existing funding belt, however we are working with our stakeholders to acquire the resources to create more meaningful, long-term change.

Professionalising our workforce

All our staff contribute to the successful delivery of each federal election, so we are investing in our people through a new approach to learning and development. Every aspect of our learning is driven by our new Learning Governance Committee which focuses on national consistency. This is underpinned by our values of professionalism, agility and quality.

As well as improving online learning programs, we began delivering a nine and a half day Election Readiness Program during the year. Since its launch in February 2018, this training initiative has been provided to more than 240 staff.

Staff can also experience an election role ‘hands on’, through the Election Experience Program, and build knowledge and understanding by participating in an electoral event. For our temporary election workforce, we’ve created short, task focused videos for online, face-to-face and ‘just in time training’.

Looking forward

Everything we’ve achieved this year demonstrates significant progress since the 2016 federal election. Work priorities identified through our election evaluation have mostly progressed to business-as-usual. Improvements have been embedded to enhance the voter experience.

The urgent need to respond to changing community and stakeholder expectations continues to drive improvements to every area of our work. Our corporate plan and agency directions help focus our energy while working to capacity within our resources. The next federal election will enable us to further track and evaluate our achievements and evolution.

The urgent need to respond to changing community and stakeholder expectations continues to drive improvements to every area of our work.

While we progress the business case to modernise the AEC’s internal election and roll management IT systems, the voter experience will also be improved. More electronic certified lists at polling places will make it faster to find voters on the list. Voters will be able to download the AEC mobile app to help polling officials locate their details faster. This helps to reduce wait and queue times.

The semi-automated counting of Senate ballot papers will continue. This will reduce the Senate vote counting time, enable us to streamline the movement of election supplies, and to benefit from the efficiencies and security this provides.

While the future holds many unknowns, challenges and opportunities, I am confident that we are building a solid foundation for continuous improvement, and that our ability to continue evolving will safeguard the integrity of Australia’s electoral system.