Senate calls for release of AEC vote count source code

Amid a battle over a Freedom of Information request to the Australian Electoral Commission, the Senate has passed a motion compelling the commission to hand over the source code for software used to count votes for the Senate.

The Greens have passed a motion in the Senate calling on the Special Minister of State, Michael Ronaldson, to produce source code for voting software for the Australian Senate and documentation outlining why it sought to have the person who requested the source code under Freedom of Information laws declared vexatious.

In October last year, Michael Cordover sought a copy of the source code for the EasyCount software used to count votes in the Senate election under Freedom of Information, but the Australian Electoral Commission's (AEC's) chief legal officer Paul Pirani rejected the request stating that the 58 documents related to his request would either disclose trade secrets or were considered commercially valuable.

The software is only used by the AEC, and the commission argued that the source code for how it counts the votes at an election is valuable to the organisation.

An internal review of the decision also ruled against releasing the documents, and Cordover sought an external review, which usually comes for free through the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, but as it is being disbanded by January 1, 2015, it is not taking on any more cases. As a result, Cordover needed to go to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, at a cost of AU$861.

Cordover raised the funds for the application through crowdfunding website Pozible, but after making a second FOI request to the AEC around the handling of his original application, Cordover received a letter from Pirani in late June stating that the AEC would seek a ruling from the OAIC to declare him a vexatious applicant.

Pirani argued that having the AEC prepare an FOI response at the same time as preparing its case for the AAT was vexatious.

"Although the issues have already been canvassed, there is considerable effort required to make a separate decision on your current FOI request inasmuch as I am, as a decision maker, obliged to make a fresh decision addressing all the circumstances relating to your current FOI request," he said.

He also accused Cordover of colluding with another user of the Right To Know website who had filed a separate request relating to the EasyCount software.

Should the commissioner agree to the AEC's request, it would mean that the Australian government can ignore future FOI applications by Cordover.

A person can be found to be vexatious is they engage in an abuse of process, including intimidating government employees, or make repetitive FOI applications.

Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon passed a motion in the Senate today calling on the Special Minister of State, who is responsible for the AEC, to release the source code, along with all the emails and other documents relating to Cordover's case.

"There is no justification for the AEC refusing to release information on how the Senate vote is counted. It is widely known that it is very complex so surely the methodology used should be publicly available," she said in a statement.

"The AEC hard line position in trying to discredit Mr Cordover as a vexatious litigant is an abuse of the law under which the AEC operates and raises the very relevant question what do they have to hide.

"Why would you stop the public knowing how the Senate vote is counted?"

The motion has called on Ronaldson to release the source code along with all documents relating to the AEC deciding to seek to have Cordover declared a vexatious applicant. Ronaldson has until Tuesday 15 July, 2014 to comply.

Ministers have, in the past, defied motions passed in the senate to produce documents, most notably with Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull defying a motion of the Senate last year to table the NBN Co strategic review before its release.