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Conduct of the 2010 federal election and matters related thereto
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JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON ELECTORAL MATTERS
Mr van der Craats
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Content WindowConduct of the 2010 federal election and matters related thereto
CHAIR —Welcome. Is there anything you want to say about the capacity in which you appear?
Mr van der Craats —I am a systems analyst by profession.
CHAIR —Although the committee does not require you to give evidence on oath I should advise you that these hearings are legal proceedings of parliament and therefore have the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The committee has received your submission to the inquiry. Please feel free to make an opening statement.
Mr van der Craats —Thank you for the opportunity to speak to the committee. Electoral matters are of great concern to me and I have shown a strong interest in them having first become involved in the electoral process at the age of 16 as a scrutineer involved in local government elections. I have subsequently had extensive further experience—something like over 35 years experience—as a candidate, as a scrutineer and also as someone involved in the party machinery. I have also at various times worked as an electoral official both at state and federal elections in polling place administration and also in the capacity of a student representative in student politics.
I am very much concerned about the electoral process and I have put forward a submission today addressing a number of those concerns. I should point out in my covering letter in my submission there is a missing item 1.4 which is included in the bulk of the submission. It is in respect of the candidate’s nomination deposit and refund. It is just missing from the front sheet.
I would like to endorse many of the comments made by the previous witness about computerised counting systems, particularly the need to maintain and the importance of maintaining transparency and the desirability to have an open source code that is accessible to people as we move more and more towards an electronic counting system. I am particularly concerned from a scrutiny point of view, more so at this stage than in the general process of how to record the data and all those sorts of things.
I am very much concerned, with respect to the Senate voting system, about the importance and the need to ensure that the registered below-the-line preference votes are readily made available for scrutineers to monitor, observe, analyse and report on. I should point out at this stage that I was a scrutineer at the Victorian Senate election 2010 and I was very impressed overall with the activities of the Australian Electoral Commission, particularly the returning officer who was responsible at the time for conducting the below-the-line scrutiny. However, it fell short on two points of concern to me. My first point of concern was the failure and the refusal of the Electoral Commission to make available copies of the data file during the transcription and data recording of the below-the-line preferences. This information was denied to me. It did not allow me the opportunity to verify the systems that were being put in place. I am more concerned that it gave me no opportunity during the count to analyse the data that was being recorded.
CHAIR —Is that provided anywhere else? I was just involved in the scrutineering for the New South Wales upper house. You just had to provide your scrutineers looking over the shoulder of people inputting the data. At the end of the process when the button was pressed yesterday, it is all now on the public record as to the preference flow—the 308—
Mr van der Craats —It is a bit after the fact when that happens and this is my concern. For example, I have been involved in the computerised counting of votes which dates back to 1996 when the City of Melbourne first conducted a computerised count that was organised by the Australian Electoral Commission. We had access to the data files as the data was being recorded we created little snapshots every half hour or so. The City of Melbourne election that was conducted in 2008 provided scrutineers with that information. I have previously had to take FOI applications in the past against the Victorian Electoral Commission in order to obtain copies of that electronic data file.
CHAIR —Is that after the event?
Mr van der Craats —Unfortunately on that occasion it was after the event. However, we have raised this issue with the state parliament on a number of occasions and the state parliament has indicated time and time again that it believes this information should be readily available to scrutineers. There is nothing in the legislation that I have read that would prohibit or prevent this information being made available during the count. We see already on election night that as the polling booth results come in the information is being displayed on the election. There is no reason in a Senate count as the data entry process is taking place for below-the-line votes why the same information cannot be tallied up and made available publicly—no technical reason whatsoever. In fact it is desirable that that information is readily made available. By having access to that information we can monitor the transcription process; we can monitor whether or not votes are being properly transcribed and transferred from various sources.
CHAIR —So can you tell us what the arguments are against that happening? What has been put to you?
Mr van der Craats —I can see no argument against it whatsoever.
CHAIR —I know that you can see no argument.
Mr van der Craats —I have had no argument placed, other than the fact that there is not a legislative requirement to provide that information. I would argue that there is; I would argue it is part and parcel of maintaining an open and transparent system. I would also argue that it is the right of scrutineers to observe that process in full detail as much as possible. With the transcription system it is virtually impossible for a scrutineer to really grasp what is going on.
CHAIR —That happened in the New South Wales upper house vote till the end when the switch was flicked and then, as I said, the progressive counts have come through and they are now on the website. What I am interested in is: what is it that you propose should be done and could be done within reason for scrutineers or parties that want access to it?
Mr van der Craats —As the data is being transcribed and consolidated on a central computer, that information should be made public. In terms of the advantage in that, if you just take the results of below-the-line preferences—we have already got some sort of scrutiny taking place on above the line—you do not know whether that data has been tampered with, you do not know whether it has been changed, whether it is a true and accurate record.
CHAIR —If that is the case, how does giving you what you want give you the ability to assess what you have just said—as to whether it has been tampered with or not?
Mr van der Craats —If you receive progressively the count as it takes place then at the end of the day when you receive the final records you can go back and see if those records have changed in any shape or form. It is like somebody laying it down in front of you as they count some money—you can see each dollar bill being placed on the table.
CHAIR —Is a sufficient way of doing it to have this information provided, say, at the end of the day rather than on a progressive basis? I am concerned as to how many times the Electoral Commission have got to be handing over disks or whatever it is that you want.
Mr van der Craats —It could be done online in the same way as the information is being pulled off on election night: online, real time, with no inconvenience whatsoever. You could even do it down to the individual ballot paper if need be.
CHAIR —How is it to be done, put it online?
Mr van der Craats —As soon as the computer enters the information it could be readily available online. It is recorded; it is sitting there as a record of that vote.
CHAIR —Can you tell the committee whether you know of any jurisdiction that does that?
Mr van der Craats —The city of Melbourne election does not do it publicly online, for the public, but as the count progresses they do provide preference data at request.
CHAIR —When do they provide it—at the end of the day?
Mr van der Craats —No, generally it is every half hour, give or take. The main thing is it is batched and the scrutineers can take that information and do their own political cross-references against that data. They can analyse potential trends and information of concerns, they can identify ballot papers that may have preferences they want to look at a little closer—things that the Electoral Commission would not be able to make that sort of assessment in relation to. As a systems analyst, I would like to see that data because it guarantees me at the end of the day that the data that has been used to tabulate the results of the election is in fact the data that had been transcribed and it had not been altered in any shape or form. I have no other means of knowing that information, other than the fact that I have been progressively given copies of the information as it is being recorded. This concerns me. I want that information as a scrutineer in order to fulfil my obligations and my duties to the candidate that I am representing.
CHAIR —I suggest to you that a way of doing it would be doing it at the end of the count each day. That is why I want to hear from you. We are not here to provide—and I put you in this category in a nice way—for obsessive people like you who are consumed by the system, who devour elections and Senate elections; I did not know that we can have that level in terms of the workability of the system. What you are saying is that when the count goes in it should go in on a website publicly available to be viewed. That is the system you want?
Mr van der Craats —Ideally, yes. If need be, it could be batched every 15 minutes or every half hour.
CHAIR —So you want that as against, for instance, a cumulative account on a daily basis?
Mr van der Craats —Correct.
CHAIR —Are you saying that it would not provide problems for the commission because it is just about having access to a publicly scrutinised system?
Mr van der Craats —It certainly would not. Inevitably there may be some corrections that need to be made to that data set, but again making that information publicly available means that it is open and transparent and people can see where those corrections are taking place, in the same way as when you get polling place results.
Mr SOMLYAY —What sorts of directions?
Mr van der Craats —A mismatch from a data entry check between first data entry and second data entry.
CHAIR —Sometimes you have miscounts. You do that in the lower house.
Mr van der Craats —I have no problems with there being a correction in the data provided it can be transparent and identified and it is reported. To me it is important. We all know the trends that are taking place on election night, particularly in respect of the primary vote. Unfortunately in the proportional count that information is removed from us and all of a sudden we get a surprise at the end of the day. There are so many more votes counted or less number of votes counted in the Senate than there is in the lower house and all of a sudden what people expect to be the result of the election has changed overnight.
CHAIR —Pauline Hanson just lost the last position in the New South Wales upper house by just over 1,000 votes. Even on the system that you describe, I do not think anyone would have been able to predict the closeness of that result. In the end it depended on Gordon Moyes’ preferences. He pushed the National Party and Greens above Ms Hanson. Even with your request being met, I do not know that would have give you the ability to project where it was going.
Mr van der Craats —I would have to have access to the data file. I would certainly like to get access to it.
CHAIR —It is on the website.
Mr van der Craats —I would like to get to the below-the-line preference data files, not just the summary count.
CHAIR —What is there is the preference count. There are 308 counts.
Mr van der Craats —I am talking about below-the-line ballot paper preference transcribed data—the ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, ‘4’ , ‘5’.
CHAIR —The preference counts are there. When they eliminate candidates, they then—
Mr van der Craats —That is the summary count.
Senator RYAN —What he is talking about is the data entry for the below-the-line votes.
CHAIR —The data entry is not there. What is there is the preferential count.
Mr van der Craats —I argue that you need access to the more detailed information in order to understand or to properly scrutinise an electronic counting system that involves transcription.
CHAIR —What they did have in terms of the transcription of those upper house votes was a number of checks in terms of data entries. I think there were two and then a third. You had to physically observe that. There comes a stage where the political parties and the candidates have actually got to provide scrutineers to stand over the data entry and watch them put in the code. I am not against a progressive count—I am just being upfront with you and giving you my thought process; I am able to be convinced—but we had 20 to 30 scrutineers there for over a week and a half looking at the initial ballot papers in copy and then standing over each of those people doing data entries checking that they are actually doing the entry and then the second entry. That is the way it is done, rather than what you are saying, isn’t it?
Mr van der Craats —I believe that, if you had access to the data files during the count, your scrutiny would have been a lot more effective and a lot more efficient. You would have been able to monitor the trends a lot more accurately and you would have been able to highlight the ballot papers that you would be more interested in with that information. Without that information you are literally driving blindfolded through a tunnel.
CHAIR —I have just been advised that the Senate scrutiny system is not linked to AEC results on a progressive basis. The data is transferred by USB key. You would know more than me about what that means.
Mr van der Craats —It is like recording or copying a file onto a USB key. If you are going to make it available to the public, which I advocate it should be, then perhaps the point where you plug that USB key into the centralised tabulating computer is the point when it can be made readily available to the public. It does not have to be done exactly at the point of being entered.
CHAIR —I do not think the committee is against transparency. Let us be very clear.
Mr van der Craats —The commission is.
CHAIR —I do not know whether one goes that far. What the commission is doing is abiding by the legislation that governs it and that it actually administers. I do not want to impute beyond that. I am not saying one way or the other. That is why I want us to get in our minds what it is you are asking for and what is achievable. I think we have enough on that. We will follow that through.
Mr van der Craats —I hope the committee does because there is nothing in legislation that prevents that information being made available. It should be accessible to a scrutineer on request. Having been denied that information, I contacted the chief legal officer of the Victorian Electoral Commission, who tried to suggest that I make a FOI application in order to gain access to that information.
Senator RYAN —The AEC or the VEC?
Mr van der Craats —AEC. I have outlined that in my submission. I was appalled by it. I thought it was a misuse and abuse of the process. It was an attempt to deny access to the information that prevented me from properly scrutinising that election.
Other than those aspects, I commend the Australian Electoral Commission for the processes they had put in place. I think they were of very high quality. I have no sense of any misdoings relating to the integrity of the count. I was somewhat disappointed that this information was not made available, given that it had been requested in previous elections and the issue has certainly been canvassed in the past.
CHAIR —You are raising the issue of transparency. We will take it up.
Mr van der Craats —Please do.
CHAIR —I think your comments in relation to the officers of the commission are well made. They are very professional in doing their jobs. This is an issue you have brought to our attention. We will follow it through and see whether there can be a suitable resolution of it. It might not necessarily be all that you ask, but we hear where you are coming from. It is not a criticism of the officers; it is a criticism of your ability to access information that you want.
Mr van der Craats —Correct.
CHAIR —We hear that.
Mr van der Craats —The second point I raised—and I have raised this in the past—relates to the method of counting the Senate vote. I think Antony Green has already addressed partly this issue in respect of the calculation of the surplus transfer value. The fact that it is not a proportional weighted system leads to a point where there are significant distortions in the counting of the election.
Senator RYAN —I understand the surplus transfer vote issue. Senator Feeney, Senator-elect Di Natale and I have had conversations about it. What I am not on top of is the segmentation issue. I have looked through the diagram of the right system you have there. I understand it. I have counted these ballots before. Could you explain to me the issue around segmentation and how it is causing an issue?
Mr van der Craats —It is based around the principle that each ballot paper should be treated equally and that, if a candidate is excluded from the vote, you should treat the election as though that candidate had not stood. It takes place in the single member electorates except the process jumps a step so to speak. I am concerned about the way we segment the vote, particularly on the exclusion of a candidate. A ballot paper is picked up later in the counting process and it jumps a whole stack of candidates and lands smack on the next available candidate that it thinks is still in the count. It is this segmentation based on the value of the vote whether it is a primary vote or a subsidiary vote further down the line that creates a distortion in the proportionality of the voting system.
Senator RYAN —Can you go back a second. I want to get this clear. You are arguing that upon an exclusion you are effectively counting the election for the first time for however many positions remain to be elected. If, for example, after four spots have been filled in a half Senate election, which is when you might have your first exclusion because no-one has a quota, you would then exclude the person and count the ballot as if the person who is excluded had never stood and you are having an election for the remaining candidates?
Mr van der Craats —I advocate that you start the count completely from the beginning again.
Senator RYAN —So you actually re-conduct the ballot for the whole—
Mr van der Craats —Redistribute the preferences completely again.
Senator RYAN —Is it possible in that case to effectively change the election of candidates beforehand?
Mr van der Craats —No.
Senator RYAN —It should not be mathematically.
Mr van der Craats —No, mathematically I have not come upon that situation. In a segmented ballot system, yes, that is a possibility, but by eliminating the segmentation process it does not occur. The aim of the reiterative counting system—I should point out that this discussion came about in a conversation I had with the Hon. John Lenders at the time. He started talking about a reiterative counting system as a way of resolving the problem—
Senator RYAN —It is guaranteed to turn voters off, after COAG issues.
Mr van der Craats —Sorry?
Senator RYAN —It is the world’s second most boring issue for voters, how we count the ballot papers.
Mr van der Craats —The system I am advocating is a simpler system that has less complexities built into it than the existing segmented system that is in place.
CHAIR —What interests me is the capacity for different results, quite frankly. I need to be, and I am sure the committee wants to be, convinced as to how, by doing it your way, do we get the right result as against the wrong result if we keep doing it our way?
Senator RYAN —I understand you tracked the surplus value issue with the 2007 result in Victoria. Can you explain to me how the segmentation affected the Queensland 2007 half-Senate election?
Mr van der Craats —Because some ballot papers at full value jumped the queue—
Senator RYAN —Okay, explain what you mean by ‘jumped’ there.
Mr van der Craats —Some people had votes that normally would have gone to the Labor Party or the Liberal Party had they been counted as though those candidates that were excluded were taken out in the first place. Those votes would have formed part of the Liberal Party or the Labor Party surplus and therefore transferred on at a lesser value. Under the segmented system they jumped that queue at a full value.
Senator RYAN —Because they have not been counted in the election of a candidate earlier?
Mr van der Craats —Not been included in that. And in that process there you see this distortion. In effect it gives greater weight to minor parties disproportionate to their vote.
CHAIR —But why shouldn’t the vote transfer at full value if it has not been used to elect another candidate?
Mr van der Craats —Because it should have been allocated correctly to either the Labor Party or the Liberal Party in the first instance.
Mr van der Craats —Because that was their second preference.
Senator RYAN —It comes down to when you think a ballot paper is utilised. You are talking about an overall proportionality, when you look at the whole ballot, whereas the alternative view would be, ‘We conduct a ballot in this order and a vote has not been used because those Liberal or Labor candidates have been elected without the use of that preference.’ But you are saying that preference, because it was higher than, say, a DLP or a Greens preference, in fact should be recalculated and used because that was the preference of the voter.
Mr van der Craats —Correct.
Senator RYAN —Now I understand it, thank you. I do not necessarily agree, but I understand the point.
Mr van der Craats —A simple way to analyse the impact of that election is to look at the Queensland results, exclude every other candidate but the last seven candidates left in the count and recount the vote. It does not matter which rules you use, you could use the existing Senate rules or you could use the Western Australian rules. Provided you assume there are only seven candidates, you will end up with a different result. I say this with concern, of course, because my party benefited from the distortion.
Senator RYAN —Mr van der Craats, I understand that point, but we do not conduct an election by excluding all other candidates. What you are almost advocating is count the ballot one way, get the last seven, then count it again. If you come up with a different result, which one do you take?
Mr van der Craats —Again, it is based on the principle of when a candidate is excluded then distributing their votes as though that candidate had not stood. The reason I went to the straight seven is to avoid having to go through the other steps that are required to finally get down to the last position. I would not advocate do a one-up count and then take the last seven; that was just an example to show you how the result does differ.
CHAIR —Can you tell me where your system is used?
Mr van der Craats —It was used in other shapes. It is effectively used in the lower house counting system if you think about the processes, except you do not see the exclusion taking place because you can quickly jump to the end result.
Senator RYAN —But votes can still jump in the lower house?
Mr van der Craats —It does not jump, it cannot jump; it always has to land on a candidate who is below 50 per cent.
Senator RYAN —If, for example, you are concerned about a person who voted 1 Liberal, 2 DLP, 3 Fishers.
Mr van der Craats —It will probably never go beyond the Liberal Party.
Senator RYAN —True, you are quite right. I am trying to think out loud here. So they voted 1 DLP, 2 coalition, 3 Fishers. The Liberal Party might have had 3.01 quotas—
Mr van der Craats —Are you talking single-member or multimember?
Senator RYAN —multimember—so this ‘1’ vote that was 1 DLP, 2 Liberal has not been used in the election of three Liberal senators. The fourth Liberal candidate is excluded quite early because they have a very low surplus vote. Therefore when the DLP might eventually be excluded when it comes down to the Fishers versus the Greens, the vote goes from the DLP directly to the Fishers by jumping the Liberal, your contention being that part of his vote should have been used on electing the Liberal.
Mr van der Craats —Correct.
Senator RYAN —What if we use that in the lower house though? In the lower house the same thing can happen. I could be 1 DLP, 2 Liberal, 3 Fishers and Shooters and my vote could jump the Liberals’—
Mr van der Craats —No, it would never jump.
Senator RYAN —Why can’t it jump if they’ve already been excluded?
Mr van der Craats —Because you have not been elected.
Senator RYAN —But when you go, from an exclusion point of view, from the bottom up?
Mr van der Craats —It is as though we have restarted the count, but you do not have to restart it in a single-member electorate because there is no difference in the piles; they are not going to change.
Senator RYAN —The point is you are saying it is not jumping someone who has been elected. My point is it is still jumping another name on the ballot paper.
Mr van der Craats —Only a person who has already been excluded from the count, not elected.
Senator RYAN —Exactly. It is jumping someone else who has been excluded but not necessarily someone who has been elected.
Mr van der Craats —Yes. In the system proposed I am recommending you give consideration to it because it addresses the two issues, the calculation of the surplus transfer plus the segmentation. It is still a linear counting system. It is based on our existing rules and our existing processes. It is trying to remove the distortions that take place through segmentation. The system of segmentation came about in the past when we used to have to count these things manually and it became very difficult to want to transfer all these ballot papers. Now, with the aid of computer technology, we can simplify that process a lot more and make it more proportional and more accurate and ideally all the vacant positions should be elected in one iteration of the counting system. That is what I am advocating.
Senator RYAN —I have one last question. We could address the surplus transfer issue without addressing the segmentation issue, couldn’t we?
Mr van der Craats —We could. You would still be leaving a distortion in the count.
Senator RYAN —I understand but I might have a different view on that. The surplus value issue can be addressed by the way we calculate the surplus value of elected candidates.
Mr van der Craats —It should be done as a matter of course. It is a major error, as you probably would have discussed with Senator Feeney.
CHAIR —Optional preferential voting?
Mr van der Craats —Optional preferential voting: I am very concerned about that. I think it degrades our voting system. It begins to make our voting system more like a first past the post system. We have seen some of that effect take place in New South Wales. We certainly saw the effect of optional preferential in the Victorian state election in respect of the Western Metropolitan province. I am not a great fan of optional preferential. I think it should be seriously looked at before you even consider adopting it. However, given the trend and the pressure, that is the direction most jurisdictions are heading in.
My concern—and I have here an extra paper which I am happy to submit if I may, so I will submit that—with respect to the Victorian state election is this, and I should correct a misleading statement made by Mr Steve Tully. Optional preferential in the Victorian state election was introduced in 2010, not 2006. It was the first time we did it. My concern is that the Victorian Electoral Commission has advocated effectively that the voters vote ‘1’ to ‘5’. If you look at a copy of the ballot paper that was produced for the Victorian state election, you see that they have effectively said vote ‘1’ to ‘5’ in order to have your vote considered to be valid. If a person wants to maximise their vote, they should number every preference. In not numbering every preference, they are placing at risk—or handing over—the decision to some other unknown group.
We see a situation like that occurring, for example, where the Greens might exhaust their preferences after ‘1’ to ‘5’ and they will not go beyond their party whatsoever. Effectively those votes exhaust and there is no determination as to who else they would flow to in support. In the case of Western Metropolitan, that created some distortion in the counting process because the Labor Party did not pick up the full preferences that it would normally pick up had there been a full preferential system. If we do adopt an optional preferential system, we must ensure that an electoral commission seeks to encourage the allocation of full preferences, not just the bare minimum that we use. We should be looking at a saving provision, as opposed to an optional option. So I wanted to raise those issues.
CHAIR —Okay. Another one is candidate nomination, deposit and refund.
Mr van der Craats —One of the reasons we are seeing a large increase in the size of the ballot paper, particularly in New South Wales, is that the above-the-line system is effectively giving those groups a major say in the direction of their preferences. In many cases it is arguable that voters will not know where those preferences will be allocated to.
CHAIR —For the record, I am told that for Senate candidates it is a $1,000 deposit. For the House of Representatives it is $500. What are you suggesting?
Mr van der Craats —I would argue that we should be increasing the deposit significantly, potentially five times as much and maybe even up to 10 times as much. It is a decision that obviously the committee would have to take. I think that would tend to limit and restrict the potential for smaller groups of people who have no chance of being elected in considering whether or not it is worth nominating.
CHAIR —You had Pauline Hanson, who got two per cent or something of the vote. She went within a thousand votes of being elected to the New South Wales upper house. Who is to say she had no chance to be elected?
Mr van der Craats —I would need to analyse the data file. I hope I can get access to that soon if possible. I think there are other issues involved there. Optional preferential would have contributed significantly to that chance.
CHAIR —My concern is not the increase in the nomination fees as I can see an argument for that. My concern is that the extent that you have suggested is quite prohibitive, frankly.
Mr van der Craats —To make it $5,000?
CHAIR —I think it is a bit rich. That is my personal view.
Mr van der Craats —If you look at overseas examples for people wanting to be members of parliaments or for people seeking to run for presidencies, you see the nomination fee is considerably higher, even up to the million dollar mark. Ours is quite low. It is a minimal deposit. The other issue that is taking place is that if you get a group of five people each who are paying a thousand dollars that is $5,000. They have bought that one per cent influence in the election for the cost of $5,000. I would also argue, in considering the issue of deposits, that the refund of the deposit should be based on the number of candidates. If you have four or five per cent and that is your threshold for a refund, then you should be entitled to the refund of one candidate, not of the whole group. That is an issue that concerns me because we are now seeing groups, ones that want to look like they are bigger than they really are, running a full quota of five or six candidates. If you give the refund of those deposits back on the basis of four per cent or five per cent per candidate, I think you might find that some of those groups will run a lesser number of candidates based on the reality of what they are likely to get from the voting system itself.
CHAIR —Silent enrolment: talk to us about that.
Mr van der Craats —This is an issue that concerns me, and I will touch on the concern about compulsory voting or automatic enrolment. In my view, there are only really two sources that you could look at for an automatic enrolment: birth and death certification and citizenship. Any attempt by an electoral commission to broaden that collection of data information to try to force some sort of enrolment is a slippery slope towards a loss of privacy. To me privacy is most important. I have sought to make an enrolment on a number of occasions as a silent enroller, having been subjected to various intimidation threats in the past as a result of political activity that I have been involved in.
I became somewhat concerned that at the last election the Victorian Electoral Commission had lost my application for silent enrolment and that that information had not been transferred across in my seeking re-enrolment. I feel that the provisions that are currently there, to fill in statutory declarations and for the extra steps that you have to go through, are unnecessary and undesirable. In my view, it would be much more appropriate if people could just tick a box and say, ‘I want to be a silent enroller so please restrict access to my electoral enrolment details.’ I would like to advocate that the parliament consider simplifying that process in order to allow citizens to have that right of privacy.
CHAIR —There is another issue. It is in your covering letter, about the cost-benefit inefficiency of the AEC divisional offices, but I do not seem to have that in the body of the copy of your submission that I have got.
Mr van der Craats —This was just a concern of what I see as the divisional offices that are out there. I question whether there is any efficiency or merit in the cost related to maintaining those offices. I get the feeling in preliminary analysis that this would be best done if they were more centralised. The resources could be better utilised. I understand it is something the AEC themselves are already looking at, so it was that point there that I decided not to get into any great detail on. It is not an area of expertise that I have, but it is an issue of concern because there appear to be as many offices of the Australian Electoral Commission as there are parliamentary electoral offices.
CHAIR —Historically, there has been a divisional office for each division. In a number of areas they have been co-located. They still represent different divisions, but they are housed together. The commission is looking at processes in relation to how—
Mr van der Craats —I would go a step further and centralise it to a stat basis. We have technology out there. We have better communication than we had in the past. I am pretty confident that we would save significant sums of money in the electoral process by centralising the system of administration.
Senator RYAN —Members of the House of Representatives get very upset with that proposal.
CHAIR —I have a view on it which does not necessarily accord with yours. I have had the experience of observing state electoral commissions and the Australian Electoral Commission in divisional offices over the 21 years I have been in parliament, and I think we should acknowledge the expertise, knowledge and commitment of divisional returning officers and their staff and how they have added to the process. How that evolves is a matter for evolution, but the principle that you just go into one central electoral office in the city or somewhere—let me tell you: you will turn the show into a part-time show. I think one of the things that we have managed to do is train up a number of people in this organisation who have an understanding and commitment. It is also used internationally. But we will make certain recommendations or have our views sought at times. It is an evolutionary thing.
I think the point you make about technology is right. Things can be done a little bit differently. But I have to tell you I would back the AEC’s current structure against any state electoral commission structure any day of the week.
Mr van der Craats —I would 100 per cent agree with you. The Australian Electoral Commission is a very professional organisation. It certainly has better systems—
CHAIR —And to work up a local electoral officer four or six weeks out from an election is difficult. It is not that they are not dedicated—it is daylight second to the Electoral Commission. But sometimes people do not appreciate what they’ve got till it’s gone.
Mr SOMLYAY —If you are concerned about the integrity of the roll, there is no substitute for local knowledge, which these electoral offices have.
CHAIR —We appreciate your concerns. It is a situation where you have had a lot of experience yourself, and I appreciate the frankness with which you have come forward on a range of issues. It is not going to be decisions of ours in the end. I am interested in all that you have to say, but I am also interested in trying to work through something that is transparent and acceptable in terms of information that is appropriate. Because it is a transparent public process I can assure you that the way we overcame it in New South Wales was to physically be there. It is not a question of the commission having to substitute because political parties have less and less manpower or womanpower. You are raising a transparency issue. It is something we will take up. We appreciate your raising it.
Mr van der Craats —This is one of the other issues which I became aware of after I submitted the submission. I would like to argue that the commission rejects recommendation 21 from the Australian Electoral Commission’s report. That recommendation is that they abolish the presorting of the below-the-line votes in the polling place based on the primary preference. I believe that if that is implemented we will see a diminishing of the scrutiny of the ballot, particularly in respect of the Senate. I do not think it is desirable. If there is a need to cut a few steps to save a few pennies then as a bare minimum they should be presorting at the polling place into the groups if not into the individual primary votes.
From a scrutineer’s point of view, I like to know what those primary vote allocations are below the line before or on the election night if possible. At the moment, that information is available to me. It provides me with a check digit. It provides me with an indication that X number of votes were allocated to Y party, and I want to see that those same votes are transferred through the count process. If there is not a presorting of the ballot papers at the polling place, I will have no idea where those votes have been allocated at all, and it leaves the system open to potential misuse and abuse.
CHAIR —Why can’t those votes be allocated the day after, on Sunday, in each of the division areas where the count is going? You could progress to a check.
Mr van der Craats —I think it is more effective and more efficient to have it done at the polling place. If it is done the very next day prior to data entry, I probably personally would not be as concerned about it, but if it were, as I understand the recommendation, held back until the point of data entry—in fact, if it were not done at all except through the data entry process—then I think it is of great concern. This is an issue that I have taken up with the Victorian Electoral Commission and the Victorian state parliament. The state parliament have looked into it and have recommended that they maintain the presorting of the ballot papers on election night into primary votes. I think this is fundamental, particularly when there is a transcription process taking place.
If ballot papers are presorted into primary votes, when they are then being entered into the computer system you already have a group of votes that belong to a particular party or a particular group. It allows the scrutineer to home in on that particular set of ballot papers. If they are not presorted and they are randomly mixed up with each other, a scrutineer literally would be swimming around with a whole lot of different things floating around at the same time. I strongly recommend that recommendation 21 not be adopted or, if it adopted in any shape or form, as a minimum the ballot papers should be sorted into party groups prior to being bundled up, parcelled and transferred on to the next divisional office.
CHAIR —All right. If I could have a resolution that the material provided by Mr van der Craats be taken as evidence and included in the committee’s record as an exhibit—
Mr SOMLYAY —Seconded.
CHAIR —There being no objection, it is so ordered. Thank you for your attendance today. You have been here from the outset, so your commitment cannot be questioned. You will get a transcript. Have a look at it. If you want to make corrections, let us know. If there is any supplementary submission that you want to make in relation to any matter, please feel free to do so. As I have told others, we hope to report by late June. That is our time table.
Mr van der Craats —Thank you.