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Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
15/04/2014
Conduct of the 2013 federal election and matters related thereto

BLEECHMORE, Mr Marcus, Government Relations Adviser, Vision Australia

BOYD, Mrs Rosemary, Executive Officer, Blind Citizens Australia

HENLEY, Miss Lauren, National Policy Officer, Blind Citizens Australia

SIMPSON, Mr Michael, General Manager Accessible Information, Vision Australia

[14.16]

CHAIR: Welcome. We have already authorised a submission from Blind Citizens Australia, No. 97, and we have received a submission from Vision Australia, No. 141. We normally have a brief opening statement. Would you like to start, Mr Bleechmore?

Mr Bleechmore : I might ask my colleague Michael Simpson to make a statement on behalf of Vision Australia.

Mr Simpson : Thank you, Chair. I do want to make a few comments on behalf of Vision Australia. First of all, I would like to say to the joint standing committee that we appreciate the opportunity to have additional input over and above our submission and certainly to emphasise some points made in our submission. We also appreciate the opportunity to do a presentation, which will be followed by our colleague organisation Blind Citizens Australia. Both Vision Australia and Blind Citizens Australia work proactively together to improve accommodation in the community for people who are blind and have low vision. Vision Australia is a national services provider to people who are blind and vision impaired and we work with tens of thousands of people who are blind and vision impaired every year.

We want to acknowledge the contribution that the AEC made to engaging with the blind and low-vision community around the 2013 federal election, in particular the work that the AEC did in making material available to people who are blind and have low vision in accessible formats particularly large-print braille and audio, information that otherwise would have been inaccessible to people who are blind or have low vision. Given that people like myself, people who are blind, are as much a part of the Australian community as anyone else, we should have the same rights to that information as anyone else in the community. We also acknowledge the AEC's effort in working toward implementing accessible forms of voting. Along with Blind Citizens Australia, Vision Australia has worked with the AEC over several years, as we have with various state electoral commissions, to head toward forms of accessible voting.

I have been blind for 40 years this year. I lost my sight just before my 18th birthday. That means that I have never been in a position, other than two times in my life as a person who is eligible to vote, to cast a vote without being forced to reveal that vote to another human. Those two times were for the 2007 federal election, where there was a trial of electronically assisted voting. I am sure that the committee is aware of that trial and the recommendations that came from JSCEM around that—

CHAIR: In 2005?

Mr Simpson : In 2007.

CHAIR: Yes, in the 2007 election. I was chairing the committee back then and Mr Griffin was on it back in 2005.

Mr Simpson : That is correct. We understand why the committee made the recommendation that they did, in terms of not continuing to roll out the electronically assisted voting machines that were used in the 2007 federal election, because the practicality, the feasibility, of rolling something out to several thousand polling places is just not economically viable. The other time that I have been able to vote without being forced to reveal my vote to another human was the 2011 New South Wales state election. I am a New South Wales resident. I used iVote—computerised phone voting—for the 2011 federal election. So in my 40 years of voting for local, state and federal elections and many by-elections—I probably voted almost 40 times in those 40 years—there have only been those two occasions when I have not been forced to reveal my voting preferences to another human being.

Vision Australia is supportive of the human-in-a-call-centre approach to offering people who are blind or have low vision an assisted vote, but we certainly do not consider it to be equivalent to a secret, verifiable and independent vote that sighted members of the community have. We believe that, whilst it might have been anonymous, in that the person in the call centre did not know who you were, because you simply got through by using your PIN and pass code, it certainly was not secret and it certainly was not independent. You could argue whether it was verifiable. We support the notion of the assisted vote with a person in a call centre but only as part of a suite of broader options for accessible voting—in particular, internet voting and phone computerised voting, such as the iVote system that was offered to people who are blind or have low vision, and many other categories, for the 2011 New South Wales election. So we are strongly—

CHAIR: Is that the only place where that has been offered to date?

Mr Simpson : That form of voting, yes. The 2011 I vote system used both internet and phone computerised voting. In by-elections in New South Wales the New South Wales Electoral Commission has deployed the internet component but offered a human in a call centre for phone assisted voting in smaller by-elections. The feasibility for both of those components, the computerised phone approach and the internet approach, really comes into its own when there are a significant number of people.

Vision Australia undertook a piece of work for the Australian Electoral Commission for the 2013 federal election, and it was to promote the human in the call centre phone voting option to Vision Australia clients. Through that project we made contact with just under 25,000 of our clients and that lifted the people using that system for 2013 to over 2,800 compared to 410 when a similar human in a call centre option was offered for the 2010 federal election. So in addition to recommending that it only be one component of a broader suite of accessible options offered, we certainly recommend that whatever options are offered into the future blindness organisations are supported to promote actively to their communities of interest. In that respect we also want to suggest that, like the iVote system in New South Wales, any broader options for accessible voting be made more generally available, which makes them more economically viable if they are rolled out to a larger number of people, and particularly other categories of voters that might have literacy or access issues, people with disability, people who live certain distances from polling places or people who might be out of the country on polling day.

The last thing I wanted to mention is that with all of these options we want to encourage the joint standing committee to recommend that the accessible options not only be made available in the pre-poll period but also on polling day itself, and that has not always been available to us.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Do you have an opening statement?

Miss Henley : I would like to first of all echo everything that Michael has said. We work very closely with Vision Australia and accessible voting has been at the top of our policy agenda for years. The difference between Blind Citizens Australia and Vision Australia is that Vision Australia is the leading service provider for people who are blind or vision impaired and Blind Citizens Australia is the peak consumer representative body, so we are made up of members who are blind or vision impaired. Our mission is to achieve equity and equality by our empowerment, by promoting strong community attitudes and by striving for high-quality and accessible services that meet our needs. To speak a little bit to that last point, in terms of the electoral process, what is high-quality and accessible service that meets our needs. So it is not just talking about the ability to cast a vote, it is about being able to cast a vote that is 100 per cent secret, independent and verifiable.

We think that the telephone assisted voting process that was made available for the federal election last year definitely brought us one step closer to this goal and we would really like to commend the Australian Electoral Commission for making that a reality for Australians who are blind or vision impaired. In particular it addressed one really significant barrier, mobility. If you are blind or vision impaired, you can understand that the idea of having to physically get yourself to an unfamiliar location where you have got thousands of people and you have no idea where you need to go is really daunting. So remote voting, having an option available where you can actually cast the vote from home, is really important and I think that is why we have seen a much greater uptake of this service.

While we support the option that was made available last year, just as Vision Australia has already said, we feel we would like to see some broader options made available. It is definitely important for people, especially people with cognitive difficulties, that they have the option of speaking to a human if that is their preference. But, in terms of having access to a vote that is 100 per cent secret, independent and verifiable, we really need to have the other two options that were made available at the New South Wales state election in 2011.

I would just like to share with you a quote that one of our members sent us by email following the election, and this just sort of communicates the fact that some people do have issues with communicating their vote to a third party and having really no way of verifying where that has gone. This member said: 'My definition of secret is that my vote is not known by anyone else regardless of whether my name can be connected to it or not, but if you feel it is secret since they do not know your name it is worth remembering that they do know your electorate; there are 150 electorates and only a few thousand blind people, so no secrecy. We cannot verify our vote ourselves, so no verifiability. And we are not independently voting, so no independence.'

What we have this year is just a more convenient version of what we have almost always had. What we are asking for in the long run is the iVote system. We were really happy with the system that was made available to our members in 2011 in New South Wales. As I used to live in New South Wales, I used iVote.

I come at this from a slightly different perspective. Like Michael, I lost my sight later in life—I was 20 years old—so for a couple of years I did have access to a vote that was 100 per cent secret, independent and verifiable, but I had that option taken away from me, and for a few years I was not actually able to cast a vote in that way. It was not until this option came along in 2011 that I could exercise that right. I still cast a vote last year at the federal election using the telephone assisted voting service, and it was great to be able to do that from home, but I am a very independent person and really value my independence and I really felt uncomfortable with having to communicate that vote to another human. I am sure that that is something that you would all be able to appreciate.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for those opening statements and for the detail you have provided. We will now move to questions. Does the deputy chair have any questions?

Mr GRIFFIN: On the situation with iVote, have you raised that with the Electoral Commission and have you had any feedback from them as to the feasibility of actually rolling it out through the national system?

Mr Simpson : Yes. Blind Citizens Australia and Vision Australia have sat on what the AEC has referred to as the blind voting reference group, and, on a number of occasions, at meetings of that reference group where blindness organisations meet with the AEC, they have also included presentations from the New South Wales Electoral Commission and the company that developed iVote in New South Wales. So the AEC is well aware of iVote, how it functions and how it applies to the broader blindness community.

Mr GRIFFIN: Did they make any comments about how effective they thought it was, or any comments about how they thought they would go about rolling it out if it was an option?

Mr Simpson : They have not revealed that to Vision Australia. We understand that, in New South Wales, the New South Wales Electoral Commission has actually tendered for the 2015 state election, and in fact the company that developed iVote, which I think is called Everyone Counts, did not actually win the tender; a Spanish company won the tender. So I am not sure how that would be taken up by the Australian Electoral Commission, but the iVote system in New South Wales certainly complied with the phone voting standard that was developed by the coming together of all electoral commissions, including the Federal Election Commission, and blindness organisations, including Vision Australia and Blind Citizens Australia.

Miss Henley : Can I just speak to that as well. I previously sat on the access group that was set up by the New South Wales Electoral Commission. It looked closely at how iVote was set up back in 2011. What is happening with iVote now in New South Wales—they have been talking about what will happen at the next state election in 2015—is that they are really happy with the positive feedback with regard to the two options that we had at the last state election in terms of the automated key prompts that were used for the teleframe service and the internet service. But they are also looking at offering the third option, which is having a human on the line, if it is people's preference, to have access to that.

CHAIR: So that they can have that choice.

Miss Henley : That is right.

Mrs Boyd : Further to that, Blind Citizens Australia is working with the various state electoral commissions because there is a certain degree of confusion within the public because you vote one way in a federal election and one way in a state election. That was particularly pertinent recently with the South Australian election, where a lot of our members thought that they would be able to have the same vote over the telephone. We have to say, 'You can't because it's a state election.' So we are working to try and have everybody doing the same thing.

Miss Henley : In Tasmania, the electoral commission there has the authority to make discretionary decisions. So they offer some people in rural and remote areas, but mostly people who are interstate on election day, the ability to cast their votes over the internet. It is not an option that has been extended to anyone else, but they definitely have the option to make those decisions on a case-by-case basis. So that sort of thing is happening in Tasmania as well.

Senator KROGER: I wonder what format that takes. I thank you Mr Simpson and Miss Henley for taking time out to come in today. It is one thing to read a submission but, I have to tell you, from my personal experience it is far more compelling to be able to have free-flowing discussions. So we really appreciate your joining us and your great submissions.

I butted in when Ms Boyd made that observation about the complexity of different systems and people not understanding because that could be applied across the board. A significant number of voters have difficulty on polling day determining that they have to vote differently. So it is a common issue.

I will just go back to polling by the internet, though. Was it the ACT where we heard they undertook a trial, at the ACT elections, with voting? I think it was at the polling booth.

Mr Simpson : They have a voting kiosk at some polling places.

Senator KROGER: Yes; what was that?

CHAIR: That was at pre-poll centres, I think.

Senator KROGER: Was it? It was limited. Are you aware of that, Mr Simpson?

CHAIR: They had four pre-poll centres, I think.

Senator KROGER: Are you aware whether that worked well or not? Have you got some observations on that?

Mr Simpson : It does work. It is made available to the general community. It is not confined to people who are blind or have low vision or any other defined category of voter. It is open to anyone who wants to use the electronic voting kiosk. But, similar to the—

Senator KROGER: And they had a different keyboard?

Mr Simpson : Yes.

Senator KROGER: So you could vote independently.

Mr Simpson : It was very similar to the 2007 electronically assisted voting trial that was carried out by the AEC.

CHAIR: That was carried out, I think, at just one or two locations.

Mr Simpson : It was carried out at 29 polling places in 2007.

CHAIR: There was one in Hawthorn, wasn't there, in Victoria?

Mr Simpson : There were 29 pre-poll places around Australia. About 850 people who were blind used that system in 2007. But in the way that this committee made the recommendation around the impracticality of rolling something like the machines in 2007 that were in 29 polling places out to several thousand places around Australia, the same goes for the ACT kiosks. They are only made available in a limited number of polling places in the ACT, keeping in mind that the ACT is only a very small place anyway. Rolling that sort of system out to several thousand polling places for a federal election just makes it impractical. That is why the iVote system is more practical and feasible, particularly if it is opened up to other categories of voters.

Senator KROGER: Miss Henley, you talked about individuals having the choice of voting with assistance over the phone or independently. I am thinking of my mother, who has taken a long time to transition from going to the bank teller to conduct a transaction; we have actually got her up to using ATMs, but it took a little while. How many people do you think would avail themselves of an independent system? You mentioned you are a fierce defender of independence, and that struck a chord with me, I have to tell you. Do you think this is something that people would transition to—so, over time, whether it was at a local, state or federal election, they would transition to a fully independent service, whether that be over the phone, using their keypads, or over the internet?

Miss Henley : What I am mindful of is that, while we represent people who are blind or vision impaired, we try and promote universal design as much as possible, so we need to keep in mind that there are people with other disabilities that may also benefit from a service like this. People with cognitive impairments, particularly, may have difficulty with using an automated system. For a lot of our members, because the leading cause of blindness in Australia is age-related macular degeneration—so, as you say, it is something that comes up with the older population—often there is this transition that has to take place for them to feel comfortable with using new technology. So perhaps in the future, as we see a shift in the population, they would be more comfortable with that concept. But I am, certainly in the back of my mind, considering people who have additional support needs as well.

Senator KROGER: My final question is in relation to polling day and pre-polling, because we are seeing an increase in managing in the number of people who vote before polling day. And were there more at the recent WA Senate election rerun?

CHAIR: Yes.

Senator KROGER: Is this a service that should be provided for a concentrated period, maybe a week before polling day, or for the full pre-polling time frame that currently exists? Have you got any advice? I am looking for advice, I guess, in relation to this.

Mr Simpson : Vision Australia's view is that accessible voting options should be not only part of the mainstream voting options but also available right through the pre-poll period and on polling day as well.

Miss Henley : Blind Citizens Australia certainly echoes those sentiments.

Senator KROGER: Okay. What is to stop me from registering for that service? What identification should one have to be able to access the service? Clearly, people should not be allowed to abuse it; so on what basis could it be determined which people were able use the service?

Mr Simpson : If it is confined to people who are blind or have low vision, then it would be in the same way that a person needs to make a declaration to make them eligible for a postal ballot, or for a pre-poll vote because they are going to be out of country on the day. There are many options for people to declare that they fit into a particular category for voting, and the same flows for people who are blind or have low vision in terms of making that declaration. And, if a person makes a false declaration in the same way that they might make a false decoration for some other category, then the same penalties would apply.

Senator KROGER: Sure. Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Senator Tillem, do you have any questions?

Senator TILLEM: No, it has been pretty comprehensive.

CHAIR: I think it is quite comprehensive. I will just finish off with one catch-all, I suppose. You have mentioned the AEC at the last election. You have mentioned the New South Wales election. Mrs Boyd, you mentioned the difficulty around various jurisdictions. You are really saying to us that our first task is to sit down with the AEC and see what is possible at the next election but, beyond that, try to get some uniformity, as obviously everyone wants to move to more enhanced services for the blind and low-vision.

Mrs Boyd : Yes.

CHAIR: That is really your message today.

Mr GRIFFIN: The New South Wales approach at the last election is well worth having a look at.

Mrs Boyd : Yes, absolutely.

Miss Henley : The thing to remember is that a number of the states and territories are taking steps. Tasmania already has the legislation set up so that it can put these changes in place if it would like to do that. Queensland has recently made some amendments. It is already happening in New South Wales, but with the other states their legislation around the electoral process still actually prevents this sort of voting from taking place. So it is going to be a process of legislative reform as well.

Mr Simpson : Yes. My understanding is that the federal Electoral Commissioner does in fact have the scope for introducing this, but only for people who are blind or have low vision. I think the terminology is 'sight-impaired'.

CHAIR: So they have the scope already.

Mr Simpson : Yes.

CHAIR: That is something for us to follow up, but in an ideal world you would also be looking for an additional recommendation that the other jurisdictions be encouraged to follow suit if we are able to make that recommendation. You have not mentioned councils; they just flow from the state electoral acts, of course.

Mrs Boyd : Yes.

CHAIR: So there is no great evidence from any local councils, we presume.

Senator KROGER: What happens at a council level? Councils are all postal votes now, aren't they?

CHAIR: Here in Victoria they are, except for four or five of them. So that is a very good question.

Senator KROGER: So how do you vote in New South Wales for a local council, Mr Simpson?

Mr Simpson : I have to reveal my vote to—

CHAIR: A family member or something?

Mr Simpson : If I am on the same political page as a family member at the same time then yes. But in New South Wales at the last council elections the New South Wales government allowed councils to choose to either conduct their own election or put it in the hands of the New South Wales Electoral Commission. Most local councils did put it in the hands of the New South Wales Electoral Commission, and in fact they could have deployed iVote for that, but the Minister for Local Government, who I think was Don Page at the time—you would probably know better than me—said that there was no budget for deploying iVote for the local government election. I think it was at the 2012 local government elections.

Miss Henley : I personally wait for the fine to come. I do not vote at a local level. I wait for the fine to come, and then when they say, 'Why haven't you voted?' I say, 'I can't do it independently; there's no process that allows me to do that.'

CHAIR: Here in Victoria, where we have postal voting for all municipalities save four or five, do you have any information on what occurs, or would you like to provide us with some afterwards?

Mrs Boyd : Certainly in our household my husband is blind, and it is a case of whoever is home filling out the ballot paper for him, reading it all out and reading out all the statements that have come in from the local people. He says, 'I want to vote for this person,' and that is how we have to do it, because there has been no other way and he wants to cast his vote. But there is a fair degree of trust, because he has to trust that whoever is filling it out fills it out exactly as he wants it and not—

CHAIR: That is a good point. When I asked the question initially, I was working on the very simple premise that the local governments are creatures of state governments, but of course their voting systems—certainly here—are largely postal. So that is something else for us to note.

Mrs Boyd : I guess the other thing is that Blind Citizens Australia, and certainly Vision Australia, are looking into this as well. We have elections each year for directors, and we are looking at trying to bring in something like the iVote system for our organisations, leading by example. It may be cost-prohibitive for us, but we are at least starting to investigate that option. We have to send out braille, audio, large print—five different versions, email and data—in order to send out the information, and we have a tactile voting paper and people can fill that in. Our last election for president cost us $14,000, which in the scheme of things is not that much, but we have 3,000 members. We want to try to lead by example so that we can also argue the point that, if we can do it, then perhaps other people should too.

Senator KROGER: Someone alluded to voting at Vision Australia at Glenferrie Road, Kooyong. I presume that is where you were talking about.

CHAIR: Yes, in the 2007 election, or before 2007. They had a trial in 29 locations.

Senator KROGER: They had a booth or something there.

CHAIR: Yes, for pre-poll.

Senator KROGER: It sounds like a great idea for pre-polling.

Mr Simpson : There were a number of our sites, including Kooyong in Melbourne—

Senator KROGER: Yes, opposite—

Mr Simpson : and Enfield in New South Wales. Other locations have been used as pre-poll centres—even on polling day for both the federal and state elections. Lauren made the point earlier about the difficulty for blind people, in terms of mobility. Often polling places are unfamiliar to us. They are one-offs, because they are set up at a school, a church hall or wherever they are.

Senator KROGER: They are hard to find for most of us.

Mr Simpson : People who are blind tend to know where Vision Australia sites are, because they are familiar with them anyway.

Mrs Boyd : By the same token, there is RSB in South Australia. Their premises are used as a pre-poll centre. People can go along and they are familiar with it. They still have to get help to access the voting, but at least finding the place to vote is a lot easier. It is one barrier removed.

CHAIR: I have a final question—a request, I suppose. Your submissions are very detailed, which is fantastic. We will certainly follow them up when we talk with the AEC, particularly your point, Mr Simpson, about the discretion and what is there, and your point, Mrs Boyd, about consistency across jurisdictions. The only thing that might be of additional use is whether you have any observations, in a supplementary submission sense, about world's best practice. This is an area that I am sure is moving very quickly. We talked about 2007 and many jurisdictions, notwithstanding all the other differences in a technological sense—be it a state in the US or somewhere in the UK.

Miss Henley : Speaking internationally, to close from Blind Citizens Australia I will read from article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Australian government has both signed and ratified that convention. Article 29 says:

States Parties shall guarantee to persons with disabilities political rights and the opportunity to enjoy them on an equal basis with others, and shall undertake to:

…   …   …

Ensuring that voting procedures, facilities and materials are appropriate, accessible and easy to understand and use;

It continues:

Protecting the right of persons with disabilities to vote by secret ballot in elections and public referendums without intimidation, and to stand for elections, to effectively hold office and perform all public functions at all levels of government, facilitating the use of assistive and new technologies where appropriate …

CHAIR: Thank you for that. Thanks again for your submissions and for taking the time to appear today. We will be in touch. If you have any further information, as I said, particularly on the international side of things, that is quite critical in showing what is working today. We are not always aware of it.

Senator TILLEM: I would like to thank the participants. They have a strong advocate in me as a sufferer of diabetic retinopathy who is vision impaired. I thank you for your submission and the contribution you made. You will have a strong advocate in me for anything you recommend to this committee.

Mr Simpson : Thank you.

CHAIR: Thanks for appearing.

Resolved that these proceedings be published.

Committee adjourned at 14:54