Commissioner's review

The Electoral Commissioner, Tom Rogers,
reflects on a federal election year

  • One federal election
  • Largest by-election event since Federation
  • Improved voting experience

Commissioner's review

Portrait of Tom Rogers the Australian Electoral Commissioner

This has been an extraordinary year for our agency. We made history by achieving a number of electoral firsts, and broke a number of electoral size and scale records.

Commentary and speculation about candidate eligibility requirements of Section 44 of the Constitution continued to be a focus this year. It began with the ‘Super Saturday’ by-elections in the five divisions of Longman (Queensland), Mayo (South Australia), Braddon (Tasmania), Fremantle and Perth (Western Australia) on 28 July 2018—the most by-elections conducted simultaneously since Federation.

We also implemented changes to the nomination process by introducing an option for people wishing to stand as candidates to confirm their eligibility to be elected to Parliament through a qualification checklist.

The AEC conducted a further by-election in the Division of Wentworth. This was the ninth by-election held this electoral cycle—the highest number of by-elections conducted during any one cycle in more than 30 years.

We also invested heavily in planning and preparing for the 2019 federal election, including developing new procedures and processes to further improve the voter experience. The by-elections were a great opportunity for us to test these before the federal election.

A record 16,424,248 Australians enrolled to vote in the 2019 federal election, making it the largest electoral roll in Australian history. This follows almost 100,000 additions to the roll in the week preceding the close of rolls, which increased the national enrolment rate to a remarkable 97 per cent*.

Five by-elections (Super Saturday)

We have the largest electoral roll in Australian history, and a national enrolment rate of a remarkable 97 per cent*.

The AEC focused on high integrity outcomes for the by-elections held on 28 July 2018. We completed a large-scale awareness campaign to ensure electors in the affected divisions were aware of the events—including an election guide which was delivered to households in the five divisions—supported by a range of advertising, social media activities and media interviews.

We used electronic certified lists (ECLs) across all of the five divisions to access real time information that helped manage queues and ballot paper supply in polling places.

We ensured the results for these by-elections were delivered swiftly and safely. The AEC returned the writs for all divisions well within the dates specified by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, with the divisions of Braddon, Fremantle and Mayo returned on 6 August 2018 and the divisions of Longman and Perth returned on 13 August 2018.

The successful conduct of these by-elections showcased our progress in professionalising our workforce and our improvements to the processes we undertake to deliver elections.

Wentworth by-election

The Wentworth by-election on 20 October 2018 was the ninth by-election held this electoral cycle, so we were well rehearsed and prepared to successfully administer the event. While the number of by-elections added to an already intense workload, they provided a valuable opportunity for us to trial and fine tune many of the improvements and processes we put in place following the 2016 federal election evaluation.

2019 federal election

A significant proportion of our time and resources this year was spent planning and preparing for the 2019 federal election. Our preparations focused on priority areas identified in the evaluation for the previous federal election.

One of the greatest areas of change has been the suite of improvements to polling place operations to improve staff and voter experiences on polling day.

These changes were made based on data through our research with Deakin University, which was further validated at recent by-elections. Some of these changes included increasing the number of staff in each polling place and introducing ‘mini queues’ to better manage polling place queues.

A further significant change was to establish a nationally coordinated capability to support supply, distribution and return of election materials and equipment to and from multiple areas of the AEC. A national capability now supersedes the broadly decentralised supply chain that existed at the previous federal election where states and divisions operated according to local requirements, constraints and time pressures. National coordination of the supply chain process was supported by dedicated logistics managers to coordinate and supervise each out-posted centre. This approach, which was also tested at the by-elections, proved very successful.

Learning and development

One of the greatest areas of change has been the suite of improvements to polling place operations to improve staff and voter experience on polling day.

This electoral cycle we have also invested heavily in the learning and development of our staff. We established the National Training and Education Unit and we delivered the Election Readiness Program, which was the most significant training investment in our agency’s history. We also:

  • delivered an Australian Electoral Officer Program and Election Experience Program
  • completely updated our election e-learning
  • developed a series of videos for polling officials

Implementing new legislation

As well as changes to the nominations process, the AEC also implemented the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Modernisation and Other Measures) Act 2019, which included a number of technical electoral changes to further progress our modernisation journey and make the nominations checklist compulsory.

We implemented the new electoral advertisement and communication authorisation requirements in line with the Electoral and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2017 and Commonwealth Electoral (Authorisation of Voter Communication) Determination 2018. These requirements will enhance transparency for voters and strengthen personal accountability for all communications.

In addition, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Act 2018 represents one of the most significant changes to funding and disclosure legislation since the scheme was established in 1983. We prepared and updated guidance material to reflect the changes and undertook a range of communication activities to build awareness among all those with obligations under the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918.

Turnout

With the largest ever number of Australians enrolled to vote and a national enrolment rate of 97 per cent*, we also saw a large increase in early voting and an increase in turnout for the House of Representatives. At 91.9 per cent, turnout was nearly one per cent higher than at the 2016 federal election. The AEC implements one of the biggest and most comprehensive communication campaigns across federal government to encourage participation in federal elections. In 2019 more Australians were assisted by the AEC to participate than ever before.

In demonstrable and measurable ways, our administration of this event was highly successful. Initial indications from our voter survey (conducted at each federal election) indicate that there was a large increase in satisfaction in 2019 compared to 2016. For example, satisfaction with the overall voting experience increased from 87 per cent in 2016 to 94 per cent in 2019.

The improvements to polling place operations and queue management is a further example of our success in embracing new procedures to tackle complex problems. As a result of this and other factors, voter satisfaction with ‘the length of time you had to wait to vote’ increased from 78 per cent in 2016 to 91 per cent in 2019.

Looking forward

As with every federal election, there are lessons to be learnt, and there will always be ways to improve. We have already begun looking forward and are considering how we can prepare to deliver future major electoral events. The 2019 federal election has provided us with an important opportunity to assess the value of our recent investments, before identifying the next set of priorities to invest in and develop over the coming years.

We will continue to progress our modernisation journey—this includes further advancement towards replacing the AEC’s core election management systems.

We will also continue to build our training and learning development, and further invest in the overall suite of training for our permanent and temporary staff.

The AEC will continue to focus on electoral integrity—including by deploying a diligent approach to cyber security—which has become part of the business as usual requirement for electoral management bodies around the world.

We look forward to working closely with our stakeholders on these and other key areas to ensure we keep pace with advancements in technology and community expectations and—ultimately—continue to deliver world class electoral administration.

* An enrolment rate of 96.8 per cent was published at close of rolls for the 2019 federal election. This figure was based on preliminary population estimates and has now been revised to 97.0 per cent for the 2019 federal election.