After the torpor of the NSW election campaign, it seems the controversy is now going to be generated not by who was elected – but rather who could vote.

Thousands of potential voters were turned away last Saturday after being told they were not on the electoral roll. Many of these electors were stunned to learn that they had been removed or were apparently never on the roll.

Many seem to be the victim of the regular “cleansing” of the roll conducted by the AEC where, after moving house, the voter is just removed from the roll after door-knockers establish that the voter no longer lives at the enrolled address.

But some of the problems for voters seem to have arisen from the move to electronic support for roll-checking at this election. The NSW Electoral Commission supplied polling places with “iRolls”, Palm PDAs with the entire NSW electoral roll uploaded, which could be searched by name.

Touted as the way of future elections, the iRoll was supposed to be the authoritative list to check electors against. However, in the frenzy of polling day, it was too easy to make mistakes which meant that people were told they were not on the roll when they might have been.

An observer of NSW politics tells Crikey “I had the chance to see iRoll put through its paces in pre-polling. It’s undoubtedly an asset, but as with all databases, only as good as the data entered.

“There were names “missing” that were subsequently found if you checked the certified lists, the ‘official’ roll which gets checked off as you vote.

“It’s easy to imagine that on Saturday, electors were told that they were no longer on the roll when a more careful check of the paper roll would have turned up their name,” the source says.

In previous elections, when a name could not be found, people were offered a “section” vote, which was said to enable further checks against the roll. People were placated by this offer and went away thinking all was well.

In all likelihood, no further checks were made, and certainly nothing was done to get the missing voter back on the roll.

With the iRoll, people were being told flat out that they were not on the roll for anywhere in NSW

“Using both the paper and electronic rolls,” our observer says, “I have been astounded to see the number of misspellings and mistyping of names that occurred at data entry. These would affect any electronic interrogation of the roll.

“For instance, I typed in a voter’s name yesterday to record an ‘inability to vote’ excuse. I typed in her whole first name, which she wrote on the form as ending in ‘ie’, and the computer said she was not enrolled.

“Most would have left it at that. I dropped the last letter when retyping the name to see what would happen, and her name was there.

“Similar errors were found on another five occasions – admittedly, a small number, but I was processing only 200 forms: an error rate of 2.5% in a random sampling of electors’ names.”

Crikey understands the election administration software has produced letters for voters telling them that they are not on the roll when in fact they are, causing further concerns to both the voter and election officials.

There’ll be more fallout from the rolls fiasco in NSW — that’s for sure. And that’s even without the Commonwealth Government’s changes to the roll procedures for the Federal election.

Meanwhile, a Crikey reader writes in with a sad story about the possible implications of the roll bungling:

“Just how many diagnosed dementia sufferers may have been sent a postal vote and, therefore may possibly receive a fine notification,” they ask. “Or alternatively, just how many diagnosed dementia sufferers were assisted to fill in a postal vote with no idea what they were doing?

“My mother, who suffers from advanced dementia, had what is called a general postal vote for about the last six years. She did not specifically apply to postal vote this year. I contacted the Electoral Commission had her enrolment details emended in February, as I hold power of attorney.

“My mother was sent postal vote ballot papers and envelope anyway, so I presume iRoll reversed her amended details. When talking of potential assisted votes, I was referring to carers filling in the ballot papers for the dementia sufferer, assuming because these were delivered it was OK to do so.

“If the new computer program iRoll is identifying people no longer eligible to vote and caused them to be turned away from polling booths on 24 March, how is it that this same program allowed my mother to be sent a postal vote after her enrolment details were notated ‘unable to vote due to age/dementia’ on the 9th February?”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey