ANAO finds implementation gaps in AEC's efforts to improve electoral roll

In a third follow-up audit of the Australian Electoral Commission, the Australian National Audit Office has found that while the AEC has undertaken work to improve the accuracy of the electoral roll, more work is still needed.

The latest audit report into the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has revealed that more needs to be done to improve information transparency and accuracy on electoral enrolment.

The third follow-up audit into the AEC's preparation for and conduct of federal elections [PDF] carried out by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) assessed how adequate and effective the AEC was at implementing the recommendations the ANAO had initially made in April 2010 to improve the accuracy and completeness of the electoral roll.

The ANAO tabled nine recommendations as part of the initial performance audit report on the AEC's preparation for, and conduct of, the 2007 federal election.

The audits came subsequently after 1,370 Western Australian Senate ballot papers were lost in the 2013 federal election, which resulted in the election of six WA Senators being voided and another election held in April 2014.

According to ANAO, the findings of this audit are consistent with the findings of the first two follow-up audits and are in contrast to the advice the AEC provided to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry in 2014 that all recommendations from the 2009-10 audit report in 2009 had been completed by May 2013.

"Some useful work had been undertaken in relation to aspects of a number of those recommendations that related to the management of the electoral roll, but there were also some significant gaps in implementation action," the ANAO reported.

"In addition, no meaningful action had been taken prior to the 2013 election in relation to those recommendations directed towards more secure reporting of election night counts or the development of comprehensive performance standards for the conduct of elections."

The ANAO also highlighted that since the 2013 election, the AEC has commenced an extensive reform program to deliver long-term changes and improvements in the AEC's policies and procedures, which is expected to be in place prior to the next federal election.

Some of these improvements have included the introduction of direct enrolment and update in late 2012. With direct enrolment, the AEC is able to compare datasets with the Department of Human Services' Centrelink and the National Exchange of Vehicle and Driver Information System's licensing data to identify eligible electors that are not enrolled or current electors that have moved, but have not updated their residential address.

As a result of this, in 2013-14, 816,217 transactions were processed using direct enrolment and update, and the overall turnout rate for the 2013 federal election was 94 per cent.

Another implementation the AEC made was in mid-2013 when it launched an online enrolment service to allow electors to complete and submit enrolment applications via its website.

However in July 2014, Australian Electoral Commissioner, Tom Rogers warned parliament that the AEC still did not have the internal capabilities to safely carry out an e-voting trial prior to the next federal election.

"I'm concerned about our ability to introduce some form of electronic voting, safely," he said. "We could introduce something, but we may end up back in a WA sort of situation if we're not careful, in a short space of time," he said at the time.

"I would be worried about any form of large scale adoption before the next election, even a trial. We would not have the internal ability now to do that. We would have already had to have started that process.

"I'm concerned, as the acting commissioner, about whether I can tell you faithfully that we can implement a safe solution."

But as part of the audit, the AEC said it continues to remain committed to making ongoing improvements including implementing recommendations made by ANAO, in relation to both elections and roll management activities, as it prepares for the next federal election.

"Since the original ANAO audit the AEC has made significant progress in addressing the fundamental challenge of enrolment participation via a range of strategies including implementation of new legislative measures such as direct enrolment and update, introduction of a fully digital online enrolment service, and ongoing adjustments to the Roll Management program," it said.

"Among other outcomes these measures have reduced the number of missing electors in both real and absolute terms from 1.5 million to 1.2 million."

The ANAO concluded that it plans to undertake another follow-up audit following the next federal election, scheduled for the end of 2016, to examine the adequacy and effectiveness of the AEC's implementation of the recommendations made across the three ANAO follow-up audit reports.