Image of Australian senate ballot papers

Last election, the Australian Electoral Commission lost 1300 ballot papers in Western Australia, forcing the state to another vote. But this time around the AEC has outsourced the process of transport and storing the papers, to try to prevent a repeat.

“Under the oversight of AEC officers, Fuji Xerox is responsible for receiving, transporting, tracking and storing ballot papers at their facilities,” a fact sheet on new Senate counting procedures reveals. This change came from an investigation into the lost ballot papers by Mick Keelty in 2013 and a parliamentary inquiry into the election.

The Keelty report found that, in the case of WA, there was a lack of detailed, trackable and accountable inventories for the movement of the ballots between the warehouses, as well as improper segregation of the various ballot papers at various stages of the counting.

“Ballots were left in open, unsecured boxes at the recount centre overnight, in the custody of a lone security guard, who had not been vetted by the AEC for political neutrality, without CCTV coverage,” Keelty found. Under the new system ballot papers will be stored in barcoded boxes that are meant to be scanned every time they are moved — this is intended to ensure AEC staff know where all ballots are at all times.

[WA Senate vote: minor parties eye preference deals — again]

The AEC is due to renew its counting today, after a day spent returning votes cast outside people’s electorates to their rightful place. As well as the lower house, in which six seats still remain in the balance (the ABC says 10 are still too close to call), the AEC will begin work on the complex Senate vote, which has to be finalised by August 8.

For the first time, the AEC is using electronic scanners to scan and digitise 100% of the Senate ballot papers cast in last weekend’s election.

The Senate voting changes passed through Parliament have necessitated the scanning of all ballots. Before the changes, 97% of Senate voters just put a “1” next to the party they wanted to decide their preferences — only below-the-line ballots, 3% of those cast, were were manually digitised and stored.

Last weekend, voters were told to number one through six above the line, or at least one through 12 below the line. The added complexity of the count, as well as the need to store all these preferences, led to a $17 million contract with Fuji Xerox earlier this year to provide the machines needed. The scanning is taking place at dedicated Central Senate Scrutiny centres at Fuji Xerox buildings in capital cities.

Ballots will be placed into automatic scanners, which will use optical character recognition to determine the order of preferences on more than 12 million ballot papers. Hundreds of staff will verify unclear entries. Scrutineers are not allowed in the room during the scanning process, which is tightly controlled, but they are able to view the verification process. And if there are questions over a specific ballot paper, a scruntineer can request to see that physical paper during the verification process. If there’s uncertainty over where a preference goes on a specific ballot paper, it is sent to an AEC officer for a decision.

As Crikey pointed out last Friday, at ballot booths across the country, booth workers grouped Senate ballot papers by first preference to give an indicative, early count of how the Senate might look. But this count does not reallocate preferences — that’s done over the next three weeks, at central processing areas across the country.

It takes a long time because it’s impossible for the AEC to say who does and doesn’t have quota until it has considered the full electorate’s unexpired ballots — and this quota will change depending on how many ballots are correctly filled in, and how many do not expire before the final distribution of preferences. The new Senate system may be more democratic — in that it forces people to control how their preferences flow rather than leaving that to the parties — but it creates a far greater level of counting complexity for the AEC.

[How your vote gets counted on election night]

Last month, the AEC told The Canberra Times it was still “finalising some matters” about the Senate count. “The AEC is investigating options to semi-automate the count process and, where appropriate, considering the use of scanning technology.”

The paper questioned whether the AEC would be ready in time. But last week, the AEC was in touch with political scrutineers to explain the new system, and to offer them tours of the scanning facilities.

One scrutineer who went on one such tour was left wondering how the AEC could afford the expense. The AEC describes the process as only “semi-automated”. Given the sheer scale of ballots to count, that means it won’t be that cheap. Dozens of staff at each capital city are being hired to work two daily shifts — for the next three weeks, counting begins at 7am and doesn’t conclude until 11.30pm every night. Staff in Sydney and Melbourne are also working Saturdays to get through all the ballots.

The parliamentary inquiry into the 2013 election correctly predicted that media would be frustrated with delays in knowing the full results of the election, but said the fourth estate would get used to it:

“Clearly, there will be associated impacts on media coverage of Senate elections; but … the committee is of the view that media and community expectation may have to change, as increased demand for instant information can only be satisfied to a finite degree.”

Peter Fray

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