Report

The Australian Electoral Commission’s storage and transport of completed ballot papers at the September 2013 Federal general election

8 May 2014
Description

This audit assessed the adequacy and effectiveness of the Australian Electoral Commission’s implementation of a previous recommendation relating to the transport and storage of completed ballot papers.

Overall conclusion

The integrity of the processes for conducting Federal Elections is central to the effectiveness of the Australian democracy. The AEC has publicly acknowledged that the loss of 1370 WA Senate ballot papers between the fresh scrutiny and recount for the 7 September 2013 Election disenfranchised the affected voters as well as damaged the organisation’s reputation. Ultimately, the loss of those ballot papers led to the September 2013 Election of six WA Senators being declared void and a new election being held on 5 April 2014, with a different political outcome compared to both the fresh scrutiny count and the recount from the September 2013 Election—and at an estimated additional cost to the Australian Government of some $23.2 million.

Each Federal Election is a complex logistical event, with a wide range of preparation tasks required to be completed before polling day. This includes keeping the electoral roll up to date, the recruitment and training of a large temporary workforce as well as the securing of premises for polling and the subsequent counting of completed ballot papers. It has been noted that, despite modern technology, the AEC’s election operations are labour intensive, and that the system relies heavily upon people and their commitment to the task.

The secure transport and storage of completed ballot papers is one important element in the successful delivery of a Federal Election. Issues concerning the physical security of transport and storage arrangements for completed ballot papers were raised with the AEC before the 2007 Federal General Election in a security risk assessment. In addition, one of the nine recommendations in ANAO’s April 2010 audit report included that the AEC identify and assess options to improve physical security over the transport and storage of completed ballot papers, with JSCEM requesting that ANAO’s follow‑up audit activity give priority to that recommendation. A further sign alerting the AEC of the need to improve the transport and storage arrangements for ballot papers was provided during the 2010 General Election. Specifically, House of Representatives ballot papers in one NSW Division went missing after they had been counted on polling night (but the number of missing ballot papers was not large enough to affect the result) and there were two instances related to the transport of election materials by contractors, one of which involved a box of WA Senate ballot papers that had ‘dropped off’ an open utility in transit from the Divisional Office to storage.

It took the AEC some time to progress implementation of the ANAO’s recommendation that it identify and assess options that would provide greater physical security over the transport and storage of completed ballot papers. In addition, the AEC adopted a narrow interpretation of the recommendation, which resulted in inadequate action being taken. Specifically, rather than identifying and assessing options to improve the physical security over the transport and storage of completed ballot papers (as had been recommended by ANAO), the AEC focused on making more overt in procedural and training documentation its expectation that polling place officials keep ballot papers secure at all times by implementing existing approaches to ballot paper security. Such an approach alone does not provide sufficient support to the AEC’s large temporary workforce, which plays a crucial role in ballot paper security on polling‑day and in the transport of ballot papers to fresh scrutiny centres. In this context, at a national level, the AEC has not sought to make use of the data available in returns completed by the Officer in Charge (OIC) of each polling place to assess whether the procedures and training in relation to ballot paper security were being effectively applied.

Further, the actions recorded by the AEC were focused on polling place officials and did not include other key parts of the life cycle of completed ballot papers. In particular, the actions recorded by the AEC did not address:

  • the transport of completed ballot papers by contractors, on polling night and subsequently. In some States and Divisions, contractors have an important role in transporting completed ballot papers but ANAO’s further work in this area identified a range of shortcomings with the approach taken by the AEC to contracting for the transport of completed ballot papers. In particular, inadequate security provisions were a feature in most of the contracts examined; or
  • security arrangements at premises used to store ballot papers. Variable practices were observed for the Divisions and polling places examined by the ANAO. Of note was that the extent and nature of security measures employed at offsite scrutiny premises differed, and the lockable rooms available at some of these premises were not large enough to hold all completed ballot papers.

The insufficient attention paid to the above matters reflects adversely on the AEC’s governance processes and suggests the need for a stronger organisational emphasis on continuous improvement. The Keelty report commissioned by the AEC in relation to the 1370 missing WA Senate ballot papers from the September 2013 Election made a number of findings, and included various recommendations relating to ballot paper security. In turn, the AEC’s February 2014 submission to JSCEM outlined the actions that are to be taken to address the matters raised by the Keelty report. A number of these actions would have been relevant and appropriate as a management response to the earlier ANAO recommendation that the AEC identify and assess options to improve physical security over the storage and transport of completed ballot papers. In addition, having regard to the findings of this follow‑up audit, ANAO has made a further three recommendations relating to the AEC:

  • becoming more aware, at a national level, of the extent to which important procedures are being adhered to, training is being applied and if there are any significant differences in the number of votes counted at the polling place on election‑night and the subsequent Divisional Office fresh scrutinies;
  • promoting a consistent, high standard approach to contracting for the transport of ballot papers and other election material. This includes by providing national guidance to State and Divisional Offices on the circumstances where the use of contractors is to be preferred as well as those where AEC employees are considered better placed to perform this work. In addition, there would be benefits from the AEC developing a stronger contracting framework by, among other matters, including appropriate security requirements for ballot papers and other election material in all contracts; and
  • improving the security over the storage of completed ballot papers, particularly at offsite scrutiny centres and private residences.

More broadly, ANAO performance audits seek to provide a stimulus for improved public sector performance and accountability by making specific recommendations to assist agencies improve upon existing approaches and address risks to the delivery of outcomes. In this context, concerns have been raised over time by the AEC’s audit committee about the time that the organisation takes to action audit recommendations that have been agreed.

The AEC’s public apologies and the steps it has outlined that will be taken in response to the Keelty report indicates that the organisation recognises there are lessons to be learned from the experience with the 2013 WA Senate Election. Against this background, and having regard to the earlier signs that should have alerted the AEC to the need to improve the transport and storage arrangements for completed ballot papers, a key message for the AEC from this follow‑up performance audit is that there needed to be stronger ownership of the implementation of agreed ANAO recommendations within the AEC. In this context, it is important that the AEC’s governance arrangements emphasise continuous improvement and provide assurance that the action taken in response to agreed recommendations effectively addresses the matters that lead to recommendations being made, so as to protect the integrity of Australia’s electoral system and rebuild confidence in the AEC. In relation to the secure transport and storage of completed ballot papers, implementation of the three ANAO recommendations made in this report will require a greater focus by the AEC on providing appropriate support to Divisional Offices and the large temporary election workforce, who play key roles in transporting and storing ballot papers as well as contracting for ballot paper transport and storage.

Publication Details
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2014
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