Australian Electoral Commission wants money to fix ageing IT systems

The Australian Electoral Commission has said it needs money to update its election IT systems, warning that the existing ones are at the end of their useful life.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has warmed its existing IT systems are nearing the end of their life and that it needs money to have them updated.

In a parliamentary submission, Inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 federal election and matters related thereto, Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers raised concerns about the AEC's current staffing model, noting that the number of staff has gone unchanged since 1984, despite the growing pool of voters.

"I believe the temporary staffing model and the AEC's election and roll management IT systems are at the end of their useful life," Rogers wrote in his submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

"As a result, much of the delivery of elections and the data for monitoring and reporting on that delivery is reliant on human intervention and manual processes."

Rogers explained that the extra money given to the commission after a 2011 review has been eroded and the AEC is yet again in a position where it cannot invest in new systems or staffing changes.

"The IT systems, which have been built over a long period of time, are not able to be easily integrated with contemporary mobile platforms and in many cases, will not be supported by vendors in future," he added.

Pointing to the electoral system in place in the Australian Capital Territory, Rogers said he recently saw how the territory's system worked during its October election, enabling the monitoring of activity and ballot stock at every polling place in real-time.

"While the AEC faces additional issues of scale, geographical dispersion, and internet access, having the financial capacity to implement such a system would be a significant contribution in ensuring smooth-running elections," Rogers said.

The AEC is in the midst of carrying out its own internal feedback, evaluation, and improvement process, which Rogers expects will feed into the continuous improvement of its planning and procedures.

The AEC said it is currently looking into more modern and efficient delivery methods of the multi‑part, paper‑based election system, which Rogers said may include further automation, investment in IT systems to allow for upgrade or replacement, and cross‑system integration

"The AEC notes the legislative and financial constraints that have so far prevented the AEC from trialling or investing in possible solutions in these areas, and is committed to working with the relevant stakeholders, including the Department of Finance and Government, to develop realistic, appropriate solutions for the future," the submission said.

Supporting electronic voting in its own submission to the committee, Australia Post said that it is prepared to be an advocate for the cause.

Pointing to research the postal service commissioned, Australia Post said that 47 percent of eligible voters were surprised that electronic voting was not already available and that 26 percent expect electronic voting to be available by the next federal election.

"Australia Post stands ready to play a key role as a trusted partner in the expansion of electronic voting in Australia," it said in its submission.

"Australia Post already supports the Australian Electoral Commission and the various state and territory based electoral bodies in their role as custodian of the electoral process and in their drive to enrol voters and ensure participation in the electoral process.

"Our digital design and build capabilities, digital -- and physical -- identity capabilities, and an unparalleled physical network can all be leveraged in the development and provision of electronic voting."

The government organisation conceded in its submission, however, that it feels electronic voting will not replace traditional voting methods and said it could well be a complementary method.

In August, Australia Post told the Victorian Electoral Matters Committee it was looking to move into the business of running elections, and plans to use the blockchain as a central pillar of its plan.

The idea of electronic voting was discussed at length earlier this year, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten both suggesting a change to electronic voting after the federal election.

"We're a grown up democracy, it shouldn't be taking eight days to find out who's won and who's lost," Shorten said while conceding the election, a week after polls closed.

"I take nothing away from the professionalism of the Australian Electoral Commission, but it's the 21st century."

Previously, former chair of the electoral committee Tony Smith said he had considered electronic voting in detail but had changed his mind to oppose it.

"Australia is not in a position to introduce any large-scale system of electronic voting in the near future without catastrophically compromising our electoral integrity," the Liberal MP, who is now Speaker, said at the time.

In New South Wales, electronic voting already exists, with iVote being used at the last two state elections.

Last year, around 19,000 people voted using the NSW system before an error was spotted that had removed the group voting boxes for the Outdoor Recreation Party and the Animal Liberation Party.

"There was no fault on the computer systems per se; it was a human error in data entry," New South Wales Electoral Commission (NSWEC) CIO Ian Brightwell told ZDNet at the time. "Unfortunately, at the time of going live, we didn't have an opportunity to view the ballot paper."

A month prior, a pair of security researchers found the analytics service used by iVote left voters vulnerable to having their ballots changed, as well as having the iVote site open to the FREAK attack.

However, the NSWEC said the researchers' claims were overstated.

With AAP

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