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Conduct of the 2010 federal election and matters related thereto

CHAIR —Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence on oath, I should advise you that these hearings are legal proceedings of the parliament and therefore have the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses.

We have received a submission from Blind Citizens Australia. Please feel free to make an opening statement if you wish.

Ms Gaile —Thank you. I have just prepared a brief statement because I assume that everyone has seen our submission—

CHAIR —Yes.

Ms Gaile —and I assume that there will be some questions resulting out of that. I am very keen to speak to those, but I have just prepared a couple of words.

Blind citizens, as with all citizens of Australia, have the right and entitlement to a secret, independent and verifiable vote at federal elections. Currently this is not the case. Currently people who are blind or vision impaired are dependent on others in order to participate in the federal election process. The so-called secret ballot is not secret. It is not acceptable that we are not able to independently read a ballot paper and fill it in. In this technological age, it is no longer reasonable to expect a person who is blind or vision impaired to rely on a reader and a scribe in order to cast their vote. I am not sure how comfortable other Australians might feel about someone reading the ballot paper out to them, asking them who they would like to vote for and then filling in the form for them—and then handing over their trust to that individual that the vote was recorded correctly.

Blind Citizens Australia was pleased to see that there was a system put in place in the 2010 federal election in spite of the recommendation from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in 2008 not to advance on the trial of accessible voting which was conducted in the 2007 election. In this past election, the 2010 federal election, there were several contributing factors which did impact on the low uptake of people who were blind or vision impaired participating in the system that was put in place in 2010, and I assume that that will be the nature of the questions that we will be going through today. I am very pleased to speak about that.

CHAIR —Thanks, Ms Gaile. You are right in that this committee in the last parliament—and I chaired it then as well—did not recommend an advancement of the trials that have occurred not only in terms of the blind or persons with low vision but also in relation to the defence forces and a lot of that was in relation to factors such as cost, which was prohibitive. Secondly, I think you raised in your opening statement the issue of the take-up rate and what the take-up rate was. However, there was a recommendation to work with the community to try to progress the situation. Interestingly, you say that in 2010 there was certainly an improvement in relation to the way the election was conducted. I understand that you may well have been involved in the New South Wales election, which had what was called iVotes. There was a bit of a take-up rate of that in my state electorates. I just wonder whether that could be further developed by the Australian Electoral Commission.

Ms Gaile —That would be our great hope and in our submission that we submitted earlier this year we have certainly recommended that the New South Wales system of iVoting be the preferred option. I would be very keen to hear from the New South Wales Electoral Commission what the take-up rate was. Those figures, as far as I am aware, have not yet been published. I think one of the large contributing factors to last year’s low take-up rate was that the Electoral Commission was not enabled in sufficient time by the amendment to the Commonwealth Electoral Act to put in place a more effective system than that which was put in place. There is also, as you can see in the comments and quotes from our members in our submission, a lot of the extenuating factors were around ease of access getting to a venue.

An Australian Electoral Commission Divisional Centre is not necessarily a public building that many people who are blind or vision impaired ever really need to visit quite regularly, so the orientation and mobility factors involved in getting to a site can be prohibitive to someone who is blind or vision impaired and, in some cases, as some of our Queensland members stated, they live a two-hour bus ride away from their local accessible centre. The system of iVoting that was conducted in the New South Wales state election last month enables people who are blind or vision impaired to vote from home either via their telephone system or via the internet. I would imagine that that enables a greater participation rate.

CHAIR —Is there any improvement to the New South Wales system that you see at this stage?

Ms Gaile —There are probably two things and it is a similar recommendation that we have around improving the 2010 federal election, which is a greater lead-in period of public education. Blind Citizens Australia works, as do other blindness agencies, very closely with the Australian Electoral Commission via a reference group. Getting as much access to information as soon as possible so that we can disseminate it out to our constituents is fabulous, but not every blind person is a member of Blind Citizens Australia and not every blind person uses the services of a blindness agency every day. If whenever there were a public campaign and public announcements around the election process information was included in there that spoke about the system that blind people could access then there would probably be a greater chance of getting the message out there.

The second recommendation would be around enabling people opportunities to pilot, trial and play with the system. The New South Wales Electoral Commission did put that in place and it was in place for a couple of weeks prior to the election. So you could have a trial or a dummy run on the telephone system. You would also want to put a similar thing in place for a federal election.

CHAIR —What I am concerned about is how do we capture the people who want to participate in this method of voting? Do we create a special database well in advance? What you do have is registered postal voters, so a lot of people require postal votes on a permanent basis because they are in aged-care facilities or whatever. Is the way to go to have registered iVoters?

Ms Gaile —That is what the New South Wales Electoral Commission did do. In order to participate in the iVote system, you were required to first contact the commission and register and you would then be given a pin. In fact, you did not even need a pin; anyone could ring the 1800 number and practise. But once you were issued with a pin, within, I think, 24 hours of the electoral roll closing you were then issued with your registration number—I think that was the terminology—which you could then use to cast your real vote.

CHAIR —So, as far as you are concerned, that system worked well?

Ms Gaile —Yes.

CHAIR —Are there any recommendations that you can make to improve it?

Ms Gaile —I do not think so. Much like postal voting it is an opt-in service, so you need to opt in. Obviously, there needs to be education around that. Change does not happen quickly, even if it is for fabulous reasons, so there would need to be an extensive education period around that two-pronged process.

CHAIR —Are you happy with something like a registered postal voter system where you are a registered iVoter?

Ms Gaile —Absolutely.

CHAIR —I would have thought that your organisation and the commission could, on an ongoing basis, advertise and bring in more and more people to that particular way of doing things?

Ms Gaile —Absolutely, yes. The other benefit of enabling people to then cast a vote from wherever it is they choose, be it their home or even potentially a public library—any space where there is a phone and a computer—is that one of the other issues that many blind people face is utilising unfamiliar technology. If you are used to your own home phone and where the keys are et cetera and the placement of the phone, you are more likely to be confident and comfortable utilising the system that this phone is enabling you to access.

CHAIR —I have probably asked this already, but is there anything that you are aware of that you think did not work well in the New South Wales iVoting system?

Ms Gaile —It is hard to tell. We are still gathering information from our members about that. The little bit of anecdotal information that we are getting is that if a lot of our older members are used to casting a postal vote, that is the system they know. It is comfortable, it is tried and it is true. Whenever there are any technological solutions, often—not always—older people and especially newly blinded older people may feel uncomfortable about using that technology. Again, a way around that is to provide longer periods of education that enable a person to feel comfortable. At this stage I would be clutching at straws to come up with any significant comments around what the New South Wales Electoral Commission could have done better.

Mr SOMLYAY —Very briefly, is there any difference in the incidence of informal voting with your members, compared with informal voting across the board?

Ms Gaile —I do not have any figures for 2010, but I recall from the 2007 election—and I cannot recall off the top of my head; I can look it up and even email it to you—that apparently the incidence of informal voting of blind and vision-impaired voters was, percentage wise, significantly lower than that of the rest of Australia, which I think is really interesting. I should say that that stat is based on the 881 people who voted in the 2007 trial.

Of the percentage of informal votes, 851 out of the 881 were votes that counted. Thirty were informal so, statistically, apparently that was a lot lower than the general population. I think that is because of the nature of the medium of the print world being more constricted or inaccessible to someone who is blind. We pay greater attention to information so that we do not have to do it again. Does that answer your question?

Mr SOMLYAY —Yes, it does, but I have a question that follows from that. I thought the incidence might have been higher, so I was totally wrong. If we introduced a system in the House of Representatives of voting 1 and registering a ticket so that you could vote above the line with a ‘1’ for the Senate and also for the House of Representatives, would that help your members?

Ms Gaile —I would need to think that through. It is interesting in that we have comments from members both from the 2010 election and the trial in 2007 that said because they could vote below the line and not feel that they were putting out their scribe they chose to adopt the whole under-the-line process. But many of them said that they would not repeat that again; they just wanted to do it because they could. Can you pose the question again?

Mr SOMLYAY —If you could vote in the House of Representatives in the same manner as you vote in the Senate, by putting a 1 instead of filling in the whole ballot paper, the party first having registered a how-to-vote card, then your vote would count the same as the registered how-to-vote card. But you would only have to vote ‘1’ in the House of Representatives. That would cut down the informality rate in the general population?

Ms Gaile —I would have some concerns around doing that because it does not enable a person who wants the right to actually go through the entire ballot, but I definitely see from a general population perspective, certainly amongst my family—

Mr SOMLYAY —It could be optional.

Ms Gaile —If it were optional then that would be great. That would be a good option.

Senator RYAN —Your submission about voting is very comprehensive. I was not a member of this inquiry, following the 2007 election, so I just want to quickly explore the issue of accessibility of political party material. I know there are issues with PDF screen-to-reading software. I understand that has improved a bit, but only when you have very text based documents. A Senate below-the-line thing, for example, is very hard for it to interpret. With respect to political party information, what alternatives would address your concern there?

Ms Gaile —There are two things. We completely acknowledge that usually there is not a great deal of time for political parties to make their how-to-vote information accessible. However, the how-to-vote information is always generated electronically, so if the right dissemination or distribution protocol was adhered to then it would enable people who were blind or vision impaired to access that information. There are two ways. For those in the blindness community who are technologically literate, information being made available on the relevant parties’ websites would be fabulous and then there is this system called text to audio, which can be downloaded as MP3 files or downloaded into any kind of audio format. That can all be dealt with technologically, so it does not involve too much human intervention and therefore can be downloaded and distributed pretty quickly. So that would be another way that political parties could do that.

If I could speak to the PDF issue that we raise in our submission. Technically, PDF is not inaccessible to blind people. However, it can be. To simplify it, there are two ways that you can create a PDF document: If you do a photo image, that image will never be accessible to a person who is blind. But if you save it, as you mention in a text PDF format, it will be readable with some screen-reading technologies. The difficulty is that not every blind person has the most current screen- reading technology and, given that for the majority of people who are legally blind their sole income is usually the disability support pension blind. They may not have the funds to have, say, the same state-of-the-art screen-reading technology that I as a person who is employed can access. So depending on the version of your screen reader you may or may not be able to read PDFs, no matter how they are stored.

Senator RYAN —That is very helpful.

CHAIR —Thanks very much, Ms Gaile. Your attendance today is very much appreciated. I think we said in the last parliament that this matter would have to be progressed over time. We have obviously come part of the way; there is still a long way to go. Coming from New South Wales, I am interested in the New South Wales option and am particularly interested in any feedback arising out of what happened a couple of weeks ago. It might be able to be adapted by the committee. Historically on this issue the committee has not split; generally, there has been consensus. I think all sides of politics want to do the right thing and reach proper accommodation. So your evidence is certainly appreciated. You will be sent a transcript, to which you can make corrections. If there is any matter that you want to do a supplementary submission on or to clarify, please feel free to do so. I anticipate that our report will be tabled some time in June, so if there is some supplementary material that you want to place in front of us you have got until early June. Thanks very much for your attendance.

[10.58 am]