Electoral Commission exploring how technology can simplify voting process

Electronic lists containing citizens' information at voting booths or smartphone apps for enrolled voters might already be in place if the Australian Electoral Commission had the cash, a House of Representatives committee has heard.

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has told a House of Representatives committee that it is looking into a way for its officers to utilise technology to look up the status of citizens at the next federal election in lieu of the dated paper-based method currently employed.

The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters heard on Wednesday from AEC representatives, who explained that the government agency is "progressing a series of technical amendments" with the Department of Finance as part of its attempt to modernise the AEC.

The committee has been looking into the 2016 federal election, part of which concerns why there were around 14,000 votes omitted due to electoral roll discrepancies.

According to committee member Liberal MP Ben Morton, where technology is utilised via Electronic Certified Lists (ECLs), there is a drastic difference in erroneous voting ballots: 11.2 percent of overall votes are partially omitted where no ECLs are used, versus an error rate of just 0.19 percent where they are used.

"Why can't we have electronic roll lookup, not the full wiz-bang ECL, for the provision of absent and pre-poll?" Morton asked.

The committee heard that during the recent Queensland election, every voter was mailed out a card that had a unique barcode on it, which they brought to polling booths to vote. Citizens then had their card scanned by the polling staff, which not only marked their name off, but also printed their ballot form at the point of issue for those who were pre-polling. There was an 80 percent turnout rate for people bringing those cards.

"They don't have an Upper House, so they didn't need to print a metre-long ballot at point of issue," the AEC commented.

"There were no complaints about waiting," it added, noting that this method is expensive and the Electoral Commission of Queensland received funds from the state government to make it happen.

"It is expensive and complex, and we have to work within a security environment that is a complex security environment, particularly given what is occurring globally with IT security.

"We are trying to work with the other states and territories ... to talk to them about how we might do that, and we are trying to investigate getting far more ECLs including lookup.

"We're looking at a way of leapfrogging a voter card."

In 2007, the AEC had a national fleet of palm pilots, which it was using for lookup and was shared with state and territory electoral commissions.

"It was pretty low-tech, but it was effective," the AEC said. "For whatever reason, that technology died many years ago and we were never able to agree as a group how to move forward."

The AEC revealed that it would soon be heading to tender to find a vendor to prepare an app for citizens to check their enrolment status on. The app could fulfil the same function as ECLs, the AEC said, but would also be similar to a boarding pass where those not technically savvy could print their own enrolment card.

The AEC said it is also keen to explore the potential for the app to be used by declaration-issuing officers to mark off names and hand citizens a ballot paper.

"If you're employed as a declaration-issuing officer, your level of enquiry may well need to be deeper to find that person on the roll," the AEC explained. "The challenge is giving the declaration-issuing officer a deeper level of enquiry into our enrolment data."

But with funding not allocated for any such initiative, the AEC has had to toy with the idea of "bring your own device" (BYOD), which is fraught with security concerns.

"If a voter can download an app to look up their election details as they enter a booth, why can't we have the same app downloaded onto a device owned, rented, to the staff member to allow people to look up their enrolment details at these 13,000 points as a priority?" Morton asked.

In response, the AEC highlighted that it is one thing to stand in a queue and look up your own details, but that the security implications in giving access to thousands of polling booth officers need to be taken very seriously.

AEC CIO David Lang said one of the things his agency is exploring is how to provide the ECL lookup in a different way, with BYOD being one potential method.

"Can we, using technology, secure that and make it still usable on a range of devices so that you wouldn't need to have a particular device to fulfil that lookup requirement?" he said.

"To be able to do that [covering 100 percent of voting booths], you would need to have connectivity to the internet, so that would mean it would have to be a subset because we don't have internet coverage everywhere in Australia."

The AEC said ECLs are a proven technology, and it makes sense to have a fleet of equipment that is available for use in all federal and state elections.

Where other technology initiatives are concerned, one thing the AEC was impressed with out of the last ACT election was the provision of video-based training, with each polling officer issued a laptop with pre-loaded training on counting and packaging the votes and managing the polling place.

"What we're looking at is our own video-based training, which we would ask our [officers] to download on their own device before the event, have that available to them and their staff at the polling places -- I don't have the money to issue 8,000 laptops for training purposes," the AEC said, noting it hasn't yet worked through the logistics.

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