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Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
Conduct of the 2016 federal election and matters related thereto

SHERRY, Mr Michael Charles John, Australian Electoral Officer for the Northern Territory, Australian Electoral Commission


CHAIR: Good morning, Mr Sherry. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as the proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and does attract parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement, and then we will proceed to questions and discussion with the committee.

Mr Sherry : Thank you for the opportunity to make an opening statement. When the roll closed for the 2016 federal election there were 133,129 people enrolled to vote, which is 81.1 per cent of the eligible voting population. There were 20 candidates nominated for the two House vacancies, compared to 17 in 2013. There were 19 nominated for the Senate, compared to 24 in 2013.

To deliver the election across the Northern Territory, 14 early voting centres were established in the weeks leading up to the election. Also, 46 polling places and 11 interstate voting centres were open on election day. A unique feature of the Northern Territory is remote mobile polling. For the 2016 federal election Department of Human Services staff were again engaged to work with AEC polling officials. Seventeen mobile polling teams travelled by four-wheel drive, plane and helicopter, providing voting services at 199 locations across the territory and issuing 18,994 votes. A total of 759 staff were engaged to deliver the election across the Northern Territory, of which 504 worked on election day.

The turnout for the election, based on House votes counted, was 79 per cent, compared to 82.2 in 2013. Overall informality across the state was 7.35 for the House, compared to 6.3 in 2013, and 3.3 per cent for the Senate, compared to 2.6 in 2013. 32.9 per cent of electors voted before polling day, an increase of four per cent. 24,147 ordinary pre-poll votes were counted, an increase of 15 per cent. 5,146 postal votes were counted, an increase of 29 per cent. The number of declaration votes received was 15,356, an increase of 12 per cent. Of those, 12,317 were fully admitted, 311 were partially admitted and 2,728 were rejected.

Another unique feature of this election in the Northern Territory was the high number of interstate votes issued due to the large number of interstate visitors in the Territory taking advantage of the dry season. For example, 22,758 interstate votes were issued, compared to 15,700 in 2013, an increase of 45 per cent. This equates to one in every five votes issued in the Northern Territory being an interstate vote. Senate voting patterns were essentially the same, with 91.4 per cent of the votes cast above the line, compared to 91.9 in 2013.

In closing, I want to acknowledge the commitment and professionalism of the small AEC permanent workforce, the temporary election polling officials and also the Department of Human Services staff engaged to deliver the federal election in the Northern Territory.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mr Sherry. You have given us the figure for your temporary staff, of 759, but how many permanent staff do you have?

Mr Sherry : Fifteen.

CHAIR: Fifteen—nice and snug!

Mr Sherry : Small.

CHAIR: First of all, on behalf of the deputy chair and the entire committee, again, if you could pass on our thanks and congratulations to your staff and also, through you, to the DHS, for the successful delivery of the election in quite a challenging environment.

Mr Sherry : Thank you. That is appreciated.

Mr GILES: Thank you, Mr Sherry. There are just a few matters I wouldn't mind exploring, perhaps starting with this issue about the very large number of interstate voters. I am just wondering if there are particular lessons you would be able to draw upon, should the next federal election also take place in the dry season?

Mr Sherry : The last election, in 2013, was some two months later. With July being right in the middle of the dry season, we knew there would be more interstate voters present than in 2013. We allocated an extra 25 to 30 per cent additional interstate ballot papers across the Northern Territory to try and cater for that. But we did not anticipate such a large increase, of 47 per cent.

Mr GILES: Mr Snowdon's submission—which I presume you would be familiar with—

Mr Sherry : Yes.

Mr GILES: talks about the polling place location being an issue for interstate voters particularly. Is that something that you think is a real concern?

Mr Sherry : We received no issues raised in relation to the location of our interstate votes. We do acknowledge that there were some waiting times in some of the early voting centres—in particular, Katherine. In response, we had sent down a number of our experienced staff to assist down there, including by strategies such as handing out dec envelopes in the queues to speed up that particular process.

Mr GILES: There are just two other issues I would like to explore with you. Firstly there is the question of enrolment. I think we all appreciate the particular challenges that lead to the 81.1 per cent, I think, figure, versus in the nineties, I think, everywhere else. Could you share any thoughts you have on how enrolment might be boosted, and on how we could take steps—and this may be in terms of some legislative reforms as well as resource allocation questions or interagency cooperation—to ensure that more Aboriginal Australians living in remote areas will have the opportunity to participate in federal elections?

Mr Sherry : I am glad you raised that. It is a very important issue, one which the AEC is very alive to. We are working in close partnership with the Northern Territory Electoral Commission, who also recognise this as a significant issue. Looking backwards, what we have done in the past is, again, utilise our partnership with the Department of Human Services. One particular strategy to increase enrolment in remote areas is to look at AEC enrolment data, compare that against DHS client data and identify those people who are currently not on the roll or whose details need to be updated. Those particular people are flagged on the Department of Human Services database, and, when they come across their clients, they would automatically enrol them or update their enrolments. That is a reasonably effective strategy and one we are looking at continuing in the future. One strategy we are also looking at doing in partnership with the local Northern Territory Electoral Commission is engaging regional councils and utilising their staff who have access to people in the remote communities and getting them to assist with not only enrolment activities but also other electoral awareness activities.

Mr GILES: Another matter of concern to me is that it is suggested in Mr Snowdon's submission that, in some areas, voters were denied provisional declaration votes. Is that a matter which has been raised with the commission other than through Mr Snowdon's submission?

Mr Sherry : No, it is not. I did take note of Mr Snowdon's submission and have conducted a range of inquiries to understand the scope of it. That issue is certainly contrary to the training that the AEC polling officials are given, so, naturally, I was concerned. I looked at our data and there was only one remote polling team that did not issue any provisional votes. It may well be isolated to that particular remote polling team and an issue of misunderstanding of their requirements. We will obviously reinforce that for the next event.

Mr GILES: As well as reinforcing it for the next event, could you provide us with any information from this investigation? If we could satisfy ourselves that it is confined to one remote polling team, that would be a useful piece of information.

Mr Sherry : Like I said, in all the remote polling teams, they all issued non-enrolment forms and provisional votes. It was the one particular team only.

Mr DICK: Do you have figures from 2016 on whether the number of static polling places in Solomon and Lingiari have increased or decreased?

Mr Sherry : We had 41 static polling places, which was a decrease of four from 2013.

Mr DICK: Across both electorates?

Mr Sherry : Yes.

Mr DICK: I think the Chair asked for your full-time equivalents and also on-the-day staff. Was that an increase or a decrease from the last election?

Mr Sherry : It was an approximate increase of 80 additional staff for this election.

Mr DICK: Would you be able to indicate to the committee if those additional 80 staff were additional staff just for election day or part of those mobile polling teams? How many people are assigned to the mobile polling teams—which I know is a huge effort in Lingiari?

Mr Sherry : In relation to the first part of your question: they were predominantly related to early voting and state polling places on the day. They relate to the AEC's overall policy of including an additional second-in-charge of polling places that were taking a certain amount of votes, an extra inquiry officer to assist with Senate voting changes et cetera. In relation to the RAMP teams, we had 17 teams travelling across the Northern Territory. Each team was made up of three people. One person was an AEC temporary election workforce person who would perform the role of the officer-in-charge, and the other two people were from the Department of Human Services.

Mr DICK: So we engaged people from the Department of Human Services in those areas to assist as polling officials?

Mr Sherry : That is a very effective strategy because Department of Human Services want to engage and participate in this. We also utilise them because as part of their normal job they are out in the remote areas. They have that cultural awareness and they also understand the nature of travelling in remote locations, accommodation and issues such as that.

Mr DICK: There are two other issues I would like to seek your advice on or information on. In relation to wrong ballot papers issued, you indicated there was a very high number of absentee votes—perhaps some of the grey nomads getting out of the cold winter and visiting the great Northern Territory. Would you have any advice to the committee about the wrong issue of ballot papers?

Mr Sherry : We only had one example that I am aware of. That related to a static polling place on polling day, and it was user error. A polling official handed out nine votes to an elector from the incorrect division. This happened early on polling day. The polling official herself identified the error and notified the officer in charge, so it was limited to nine. Again, our review has identified it was purely a human error, if you like, and nothing to do with systems.

Mr DICK: What were the average wait times for polling across the two electorates? I know you have a high number of mobile polling teams in Lingiari, but would you have a figure for that?

Mr Sherry : My analysis of the election to date shows that the minimum time was one minute, the maximum time was 23 minutes and the average time was seven minutes. The busiest times were between 10 am and 12 pm.

Mr MORTON: Congratulations on the roll out of election in the Northern Territory. In relation to wrong ballot papers, there would have been a lot of incorrect House of Representatives ballot papers issued in the Territory as a result of people not knowing their correct enrolment details. This is the issue of the divergence between the number of Senate votes counted as opposed to the House of Reps votes counted. One of the issues I am looking at is the ability to have the AEC resourced to at least have electronic roll look-up nationally, so an officer, when a person is filling an absentee vote, can look up the individual's electoral roll details. How would that roll out in the Northern Territory? Are you able to do that via iPads or laptops? Have you any thoughts about or experience on how we can fix that issue?

Mr Sherry : We used ECLs in all the mobile polling teams.

Mr MORTON: ECLs, sorry?

Mr Sherry : Electronic certified lists. They were extremely beneficial for a number of reasons. They speed up the time to identify an elector. We have challenges, if you like, identifying the spelling of Indigenous names et cetera, so the ECLs are a terrific asset in that space. They also provide the ability to print off a House of Representatives paper for another division, outside Lingiari, for example, to save carrying lots and lots of ballot papers around. It has significant advantages, particularly in the Northern Territory.

Mr MORTON: What was the extent of the rollout of the ECLs?

Mr Sherry : We used them across the 17 remote polling team, but we also used them at a number of our early voting centres. I think we had approximately 30-odd across the Territory.

Mr MORTON: I will ask you to take something on notice, although it might be more for Mr Kitson. Is there any information that can be provided, perhaps in the future, about, where an elector's Senate ballot paper is admitted but their House of Representatives ballot paper is not, whether can we look back to see whether they were issued using the certified list or not and if the divergence is greater or not? If that information is available, could you provide it. If it is not, it is obviously not.

Mr Kitson : Sorry, is that whether there were any were incorrectly issued, even we were using an ECL?

Mr MORTON: What I am trying to get to is that there are 150,000-odd additional Senate ballot papers than House of Reps. The explanation that we have had in the past is because of issues that occur at the point of issuing, in relation to confusion about the name or address—sorry, the address—of the elector and what House of Reps division they are in. It is easy to get the state right but not the division. Is there any evidence that you can provide to the committee that proves that the electronic certified lists cut down these errors, by looking back at where the divergence occurs. Obviously, it is greatly where we are not using this technology as opposed to when we do.

Mr Kitson : I think we can show quite clearly that the ECLs give a much greater level of reliability on the correct identification. Effectively, there should be no error in the actual identification of a voter's enrolment and where they are entitled to. It does not, I suppose, necessarily preclude the physical handing to somebody of the wrong ballot paper. We can have a look at that.

Mr MORTON: Do you know the electors where their Senate ballot paper was admitted but their House of Representatives ballot paper was not?

Mr Kitson : By elector, I do not know the answer to that.

Mr MORTON: If you do know by elector, can you identify whether that elector was issued by an officer using the electronic certified list as opposed to one that is not electronic?

Mr Kitson : I am not sure that we would be able to link it back directly. I suppose the ECL would identify which voter was marked off on an ECL. I am not sure of the level of detail that is available to us under interrogation, but we will find out.

Mr MORTON: Please don't consider me to be interrogating. Thank you for that. I want to put a lot of effort into ensuring that the AEC is resourced as fully as possible to ensure that we can fix this issue.

CHAIR: In relation to the ECLs—take this on notice—clearly from the evidence we have had it has been a very successful trial.

Mr Kitson : Yes, it has.

CHAIR: I think the committee would be very interested to know what it would take in terms of cost, time and resources to roll it out fully for the next election.

Mr Kitson : We do not doubt that it would be an enormous undertaking to roll it out to all of something like 40,000 issuing points. I think the point that perhaps needs to be made is that it is more than simply the 6,800 static points, where you would need more than one device, but we are confident that the greater level of fidelity that comes from the use of the ECLs is an important element of our guaranteeing both the voter and indeed the parliament the assurance.

CHAIR: Do they use laptops?

Mr Kitson : They are small, reasonably compact laptop devices.

Mr MORTON: Are they used for electronic mark-off or electronic look-up of the roll in the Northern Territory?

Mr Sherry : It is essentially the same. Of course, in a lot of the remote locations they do not have that connectivity, so what happens is they are marked off the roll and they come back to a location where there is connectivity—it links. So you can help identify multivoters et cetera.

Mr MORTON: The point I am interested in is that maybe in the first instance having the electronic look-up of the roll—not electronic mark-off—may be a good first step in reducing that 150,000 divergence between Senate and House ballot papers at the point in which absentee votes are being processed or conducted.

CHAIR: As part of that, could you provide some more information about the software that sits behind it. Is it web based?

Mr Kitson : No. It is loaded to the device and then, obviously, destroyed afterwards. because we do not wish to have the same data that might be used for another purpose.

CHAIR: Obviously tablets and laptops are changing and changing in cost. Could you perhaps have a look at some options of cost or technology to have a look at how we might do it as you have done it previously or how we could do it in three years time.

Mr Kitson : I am sure my staff in IT are excited as you speak.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Mr MORTON: Where you have used the electronic certified lists on these laptops they have been in the most remote of locations—hard to get to, hard to communicate from normally, hard to charge batteries—but you are able to do it in these locations.

Mr Sherry : Correct.

Mr MORTON: In relation to the issue of the political neutrality of AEC staff, all staff are required to sign a declaration. Part of that declaration requires them to say that they will report to their supervisor or manager if there is any perception that they are involved in political activities. Was there in the Northern Territory any reporting to any supervisors or managers that you are aware of.

Mr Sherry : Only one example, which occurred on polling night. The counts had just started. A scrutineer had observed what she interpreted to be a count staff showing some level of joy when a ballot went a certain way. It was brought to the attention of the count supervisor, who told the DRO, and they observed this particular person. They also had some concerns about her operation in and around the count table. A decision was made to remove her straightaway; it came to me. I agreed with that and made the decision to have her leave. She was not engaged again.

Mr MORTON: I assume that they would not have been there if they hadn't signed this declaration.

Mr Sherry : They signed the declaration. They fully understood. We are all part of the briefings prior to the count. So all the policies that the AEC is required to do were adhered to on this occasion; but, for whatever reason, this person displayed that behaviour.

Mr MORTON: Do you think it was because the declaration would allow them to say they are not currently politically active in political affairs—'currently' as in 'at that time'—and they do not intend to publically engage in such activities during their engagement with the AEC? The declaration, as it reads, can be easily signed by the person you are talking about, and their declaration is true because of the wording of the declaration.

Mr Sherry : I think there are a couple of parts to your question.

Mr MORTON: There were. I apologise. So, it could be true, and therefore that person could declare that they are not currently publicly active in political affairs.

Mr Sherry : Correct.

Mr MORTON: They could agree that they do not intend to publically engage in such activities.

Mr Sherry : Correct.

Mr MORTON: They obviously did not engage in activities while employed by the AEC, but could this person have been very 'activist' in their community in the weeks leading up to the election but avoid declaring that to you because they were not asked that?

Mr Sherry : Obviously, we do not know. The onus is on that particular person signing the form at that time. If there was any issue raised then it would have come back to us to further investigate in a general sense. But, on this particular occasion, it was her behaviour at that time which we did not think was appropriate and had her removed.

Mr MORTON: In doing so, or after the fact, did the person indicate that they were involved in political activities in any way? Did you become aware after this came to your attention that they were involved in any community organisation that was politically active?

Mr Sherry : We have not done that yet. On the night there was a lot of activity, counting, ballot scrutineers et cetera. It is something that we certainly want to have a look at. What we have done is gone back to the acknowledgement of key declaration forms to make sure that particular person signed it. The answer is yes. Everything had been done. But that is the sort of question that we want to explore.

Mr MORTON: Thank you for that. If there is any additional information on which you could advise the committee in relation to this case or if you have learnt of any political engagement by this individual, without identifying them, that would be of interest to the committee as well. It could well be that some of these issues have been dealt with by your manager and supervisor but they have not come to your attention?

Mr Sherry : The Northern Territory, as indicated by my staffing numbers, is relatively small. Most issues would be coming through to me. I would be very comfortable in saying that there were no other issues concerning political neutrality, except for the one I have mentioned here today.

Mr MORTON: Finally, if I were able to identify in your mind on the question of perception that I am involved in political activities, should I be able to identify a political allegiance of an AEC staff member by obtaining publicly available information on the internet?

Mr Sherry : I am not sure that I follow your question. To make sure I understand: are you asking me if you could—

Mr MORTON: If I knew an AEC senior official and I were to go online and do a Google search on them and I found that I could identify their political persuasion, how do you feel about that example in relation to maintaining political neutrality? Should I be able to identify an AEC staff member's political persuasion easily online?

Mr Sherry : Of course, you have heard throughout the previous committee meetings that all AEC staff are required to sign—but also the political neutrality and a very clear understanding of all that. Certainly that is supposed to continue all the way through, and I would be very surprised if there was any such example.

Mr MORTON: I will leave it at that. Thank you very much, and congratulations on the rollout of the election in the Northern Territory.

Mr Sherry : I appreciate that. Thank you.

Senator KETTER: I have just a couple of questions to follow up on the deputy chair's line of questioning regarding voter turnout and seeking to improve the situation. Do you have a breakdown of the voter turnout in regional parts of the Northern Territory?

Mr Sherry : I have some figures that might be of help to you. Our overall turnout was 79 per cent. The turnout for Solomon, which is essentially Darwin and the surrounds, was 83.8 per cent. For Lingiari, which is the rest of the NT, it was 73.7 per cent. I must say, historically that has always been a challenge in the NT. I am not sure whether the committee is aware, but approximately six weeks after our election there was the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly election, and the turnout figure for that was 74 per cent.

Senator KETTER: How does that compare with the 2013 election?

Mr Sherry : The turnout across the Northern Territory was 82.3 per cent in 2013. So, consistent with the national trend, we have had a lower turnout, by approximately three per cent, this election.

Senator KETTER: You have already identified activities in which you are engaged with the DHS to try to improve enrolment. Mr Snowdon's submission talks about perhaps lost opportunities at the time of voting. And he talks about low-hanging fruit and perhaps the opportunity to address some of those enrolment issues at the polling place. Is there the possibility of extra staff being engaged to assist with that? I know the pressures that are on officials at the time to get the ballot done, but there is also some important work that could be done at the same time in terms of improving enrolment and dealing with those sorts of issues. Is that a possibility for activity by the AEC? And do you have the necessary resources to do such a thing?

Mr Sherry : I agree it is a very important issue. In relation to determining the locations that we go to and also the time, we take into consideration not only the voter numbers that we anticipate but also additional activities like enrolment activities et cetera. So, we build in enough time. We do not necessarily increase the number of people; we increase the duration, the time, at each of these locations to cater for voters and also enrolment activities.

We took approximately 700 additional enrolments as a result of the 2016 election, and that would be made up of not only enrolment forms but also declaration envelopes. So, we did collect a large range of enrolments.

Senator KETTER: But my question is for the future—is this an area where additional resources could be allocated to address this issue?

Mr Sherry : Yes. In relation to an answer I gave to Mr Giles's question, we are going to focus on working with regional councils and have people who are working in the regional councils but have an understanding of the remote communities, as well as engaging them to assist us with not only enrolment activities but also general electoral activities. We think that is going to be a very effective strategy moving forward to really get the roll up to what we think would be a more reasonable rate.

CHAIR: If there are no more questions, thank you very much for your participation here today. You have been asked to provide some additional information, so we would be grateful if you could forward that to the secretary by 16 December. And you will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have the opportunity to request corrections to any transcription errors you identify. Thank you again.

Mr Sherry : Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 11:24 to 11 : 43