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

KITSON, Mr Kevin, First Assistant Commissioner, Australian Electoral Commission

ORR, Mr Doug, Australian Electoral Officer and State Manager for New South Wales, Australian Electoral Commission

Committee met at 09 :16

CHAIR ( Senator Reynolds ): Good morning everyone. I now declare open the public hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for the inquiry into the 2016 election. Today's hearing is part of a series of public hearings being held around the country to hear evidence regarding this year's federal election. The committee has sought to get as wide a range of views as possible, including those of the parties, academics, political activist groups and disability representatives, in order to complement the views of the Australian Electoral Commission and other official bodies.

In accordance with the committee's resolution of 21 September 2016, this hearing will be broadcast on the parliament's website, and the proof and official transcripts of the proceedings will be published on the parliament's website. Those present today are advised that filming and recording are permitted during the hearing. I also remind members of the media who are listening on the web of the need to fairly and accurately report the proceedings of the committee.

I now welcome representatives of the Australian Electoral Commission to give evidence here today. Welcome, gentlemen. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I 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 contempt of the parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to discussion.

Mr Orr : Thank you for the opportunity to make an opening statement. More than 5.08 million people were enrolled at the close of rolls in New South Wales for the 2 July election—an increase of approximately 270,000 from the 2013 election. This represents an estimated enrolment rate of 96 per cent of the eligible voting population, the highest ever for New South Wales.

There was a small increase overall in the number of candidates for this election compared to 2013: 314 candidates for 47 House vacancies, a reduction of 38, and 151 candidates for the 12 available Senate vacancies, an increase of 41. Although there were significantly more Senate candidates, the ballot paper contained two less columns—43— than in 2013, although it remained at the maximum width of one metre wide. New South Wales normal staffing levels are approximate 150 FTE: 43 of these staff were new to their role at the election, including 27 new to the AEC. Of those 27, 12 were DROs.

To deliver the election across the 47 divisions in New South Wales, 194 early voting centres were established in the weeks leading up to election day and 140 mobile teams operated across the state in the two-week period up to and including election day. There were 2,319 polling places, and 86 interstate voting centres were open on election day. More than 30,000 positions were utilised to aid in election delivery, including approximately 23,000 employed in polling places on election day itself. Approximately 2½ thousand staff were engaged in advance of polling day to assist with a range of electoral activities, including early voting services.

The turnout for the election, based on those counted, was 91.43 per cent—a reduction of nearly two per cent from 2013. Informality across the state was 6.17 per cent for the House—an improvement of 1.42 per cent on the 2013 result; it was 4.53 per cent for the Senate—an increase of 1.2 per cent. Early in-person and postal votes counted represented approximately 29 per cent of all votes counted in New South Wales. Ordinary pre-poll votes increased by 183,000 to 877,160 at this year's election. Postal votes counted decreased slightly by 14,000 to 292,000. The number of declaration envelopes received by the AEC in New South Wales was 786,862—a slight increase of 24,879 on 2013. Of those, 657,122 were fully admitted and 53,708 were partially admitted. The number of declaration envelopes rejected was 75,864. The division with the highest number of rejected declaration envelopes was Werriwa, with 2,313 declaration envelopes. The division with the lowest number rejected was Berowra, with 1,064. This left a divisional average of 1,614. The largest number of votes counted for a single polling venue was at the Wollongong early voting centre, with 13,666.

The election delivery period followed a major redistribution of electoral boundaries after New South Wales lost a division in the House of Representatives to move from 48 to 47 divisions. The redistribution was finalised in late February 2016 and was applied to AEC electoral systems during March and April this year. The redistribution impact was significant, with more than 927,000 electors moved into new divisions. The AEC wrote to all affected households advising them of the change and also placed state-wide advertising. This closeness to the ensuing election impinged on the capacity of divisional staff to fully consider the electoral impacts of new boundaries. This created a particular challenge in accurately predicting voter turnout, particularly the number of absent votes cast at polling places near the new boundaries. This was almost certainly one contributing factor to queues experienced on polling day in those locations and some electoral material shortages. This is further exacerbated by the congruence of polling day with school holiday periods.

Newly legislated Senate voting requirements were in place for the election. Ninety four point six per cent of votes were cast above the line and 5.4 per cent were below the line, compared to 97.9 per cent above and 2.1 per cent below in 2013. Post-election scrutiny proceeded to schedule, and all House polls were declared by 5 August. The Senate writ was returned to the New South Wales governor on 5 August.

In closing, I would like to acknowledge the significant efforts, hard work, dedication and commitment of my staff, both permanent and temporary, who contributed to the effective delivery of election 2016 in New South Wales.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mr Orr. Mr Kitson?

Mr Kitson : I have no opening statement, Chair.

Mr GILES: Thank you, Mr Orr and Mr Kitson, for your submission and evidence today. I might just start by drawing you out, Mr Orr, if I may, on the question of the redistribution impacts. It is something that strikes me as an issue that I had not given thought to in parliaments of relative short duration and uncertain duration. As we look at redistributions in Victoria—which I am particularly concerned about, and Queensland as well, which I suspect Mr Dick and, perhaps, Senator Macdonald and Mr Buchholz are concerned about—regarding the implications of redistribution timing on electoral preparedness having regard to the current arrangements in the electoral act, do you have any comments that you would like to make about that at a general level based on this experience?

Mr Orr : Certainly. The final boundaries were only tabled at the end of February this year. After that time we then needed to throw those final results into our management system initially. Then that had to be rolled through into our election management system. So that impinged on our capacity to do our normal cyclical planning and forecasting processes. Normally we would take a regular group of cycles over a period of time. But, because of that timing and then the election being announced in early May, there was very little time to have the opportunity to dedicate contemplation to the effects of the new boundaries, and they were quite significant. Particularly up on the north coast, there were significant changes which contributed to some issues up there. So, yes, it does have an impact. Ideally, it would have been nice to have a 12-month gap between the finalisation and the election, but it was what it was. We did our best given the circumstances.

Mr GILES: So a 12-month gap would be your gold standard in—

Mr Orr : It is what it is, but more time to fully contemplate the outcomes would be great—certainly more than a few months.

Mr GILES: Indeed. But I note that, again, from looking into my own crystal ball, it seems to be very unlikely that there will be a 12-month gap between the finalisation of the Victorian redistribution—in fact, impossible—and the next election. I just wondered, Chair, if that is something we might give some thought to?

CHAIR: It is. I have just had a talk to the secretary, and this is a line that we will now follow because, particularly without fixed elections—

Mr GILES: Yes. Perhaps I will say on that, or if we come back to this at a future point, that we do appreciate, or I certainly appreciate, the complexities in delivering the last election event everywhere. We are getting an increased appreciation of the nature of the challenges that were placed upon the AEC and its staff, permanent and temporary. Obviously, where there was a significant redistribution that added a very significant additional burden. So I will leave that at that.

There are two other matters I would like to explore before deferring to my colleagues, Mr Orr. One relates to your efforts in respect of dealing with roll divergence, which obviously remains a significant issue in New South Wales, as well as in Victoria. I wonder if you could talk about your efforts with the New South Wales commission to decrease divergence, and perhaps update us on where things stand and where they might go?

Mr Orr : Through last year, the divergence was quite high—more than 200,000. Early this year there was a targeted mail-out to the divergent group which resulted in us narrowing the gap by over 70,000. At 31 May this year the divergence was 128,395. Of that divergence, 63,000 approximately were not enrolled on the federal roll and 65,000 were at a different address to the federal roll. At 7 November this year—so, just last week or thereabouts—that divergence had decreased to 96,976, and that comprised approximately 44,000 not enrolled and 53,000 at a different address. So that was a 31,000 reduction.

That was predominantly, I think, through our capacity to process our declaration envelopes as enrolment material. What we found is that some people believed they were on the federal roll or on the state roll. They have presented themselves on polling day and could not be found, and they filled out a declaration vote. Their vote probably would not have counted; however we had their details and so then proceeded to enrol them, obviously. So that has contributed. And, no doubt, as we get more local government elections coming up next year we will continue to reduce that gap.

Mr GILES: The chair has just requested that we again go through the declaration vote statistics that you used in your outline—

CHAIR: You were too quick for me to write the numbers down, Mr Orr!

Mr Orr : I am sorry. Are you after the divergence numbers, Chair?

CHAIR: No, in your opening statement you spoke about the declaration vote numbers—how many there were in total, how many votes were actually counted in the end and how many were rejected altogether.

Mr Orr : Certainly. There were 786,862 declaration envelopes received—and I put the emphasis on 'envelopes'. Of those, 657,122 were fully admitted and 53,708 were partially admitted. Then 75,864 declaration envelopes were rejected.

CHAIR: Which in effect means that 75,864 New South Wales voters, who thought they were eligible and on the roll, had their votes invalidated?

Mr Orr : That is one of the reasons. It could be that they had not signed their declaration envelope and there could be other reasons as well. It is not just the fact that they were not enrolled.

CHAIR: Even on notice, if you do not have the numbers here, could you actually give us a breakdown of those ones—the ones that were fully rejected? What the breakdown was—how many had not signed the envelope and how many had simply thought they were on the roll but were not?

And also—and we asked this in Victoria yesterday—could you provide an electorate breakdown of those figures as well? Then we can see how many—

Mr Orr : Yes, I heard that yesterday. I assumed that we would respond nationally to that request.

Mr Kitson : The data that is being sought is a national breakdown.

CHAIR: Lovely. Thank you.

Mr GILES: Thank you. I was just going to clarify that myself, but I think we can reasonably infer that, of that 70-odd thousand, there is quite some number of people who are on the New South Wales roll but not on the Commonwealth roll. That is a reasonable proposition isn’t it?

Mr Orr : I would think so; yes, that is right.

Mr GILES: Obviously, for any of us who are concerned to maximise eligible participation in electoral processes, this is a matter of some significant concern. I look forward to getting the data and seeing what conclusions we can draw.

The last part of my question is about the extent to which your cooperation with the New South Wales Electoral Commission was germane to the task of bridging the divergence gap. Are you able comment on that?

Mr Orr : For the last few years, the New South Wales Electoral Commission have developed their own enrolment strategy, using direct enrolment processes that are similar to ours. Certainly, at an operational level, we have a reasonable level of cooperation with the New South Wales Electoral Commission. We swap data on a regular basis to allow us to come up with the figures I have just shared with you. We also—just while I am mentioning the state New South Wales Electoral Commission—collaborate quite a lot on logistical issues around polling place locations, staffing and that sort of thing on an ongoing basis between elections.

Mr GILES: Lastly, I know I have been going for a bit, so perhaps, if it is easier, this could be a question on notice. Could you provide us with some information about any concerns that were raised, or complaints, about access to voting—whether it be at polling places or otherwise—by people with disabilities, and the status of them?

Mr Orr : I am aware of four complaints that were received in the New South Wales state office—four written complaints about access matters. There may well be others that have been received through our email, the info@aec mailbox et cetera. However, it was a relatively low number. It is what it is, but, certainly, our goal is to try to improve accessibility at all polling places at every electoral event.

Mr Kitson : Having had an opportunity to look at our polling place complaints data nationally, we are able to say there were 55 complaints received through our national call centre about polling place accessibility.

CHAIR: When you say 55 complaints, is that 55 complaints about the same issue, or 55 in total?

Mr Kitson : There were 55 in total about some aspect of accessibility at a polling place. As the committee has explored over the last few days, I cannot explain whether that is necessarily movement around—egress and ingress at the polling places—or the access from car parks, or the number of steps or ramps, but in the broad categorisation, it is 55.

Mr Orr : If I could clarify that those four complaints were about static polling places. There were also a number of complaints about a single prepoll voting centre in Western Sydney.

CHAIR: I have two quick questions, if I could. An issue that been raised with us in submissions, and also in the last two hearings, is the issue of ballot papers being mistakenly or incorrectly issued, either for one division in another division, or Senate papers being incorrectly issued in the wrong state. Have you had any examples of that at all, Mr Orr?

Mr Orr : There were a small number of examples, that I am aware of, that took place either on polling day, at a prepoll centre or with a mobile polling team late in the week before polling day, where small numbers of incorrect ballot papers were issued.

CHAIR: Can you give us specific details of those?

Mr Orr : Certainly. At Epping Heights polling place, there were approximately 50 incorrect ballot papers issued. There were 50 Berowra papers issued in the seat of Bennelong. At a special hospital—

CHAIR: Sorry, we will just go through those if we could. This was on polling day itself?

Mr Orr : Yes.

CHAIR: So what was the electorate that they were issued in?

Mr Orr : They were issued in Berowra—Epping Heights polling place. I am sorry—it was in Bennelong. They issued 50 Berowra ballot papers instead of Bennelong.

CHAIR: How was the mistake identified? Was it that one of the voters, after 50 had been issued—

Mr Orr : I believe so, yes.

CHAIR: So it was identified by the voter. So for those 57 people who had incorrect—

Mr Orr : Sorry—it was 50: five-zero.

CHAIR: Sorry, I thought you said—

Mr Orr : It was 50.

CHAIR: there were 50 and that then there were seven from a different electorate?

Mr Orr : No, sorry—just 50.

CHAIR: So it was 50 from Berowra in Bennelong. What happened? Was that identified after the 50 had been lodged?

Mr Orr : Yes.

CHAIR: So there was no—

Mr Orr : They had been classified as informal votes.

CHAIR: Okay. Did you find out how that happened?

Mr Orr : Polling official error—a misunderstanding.

CHAIR: A misunderstanding that they were in the wrong electorate? Or—

Mr Orr : I think a lack of appreciation that they were issuing ballot papers and that they were marking names off. They must have been provided with the wrong ballot papers. Given that at an ordinary issuing table they should only have the home division, they must accidentally have been provided with the wrong pack—one for the neighbouring division—and it was not noted until some time had gone past.

CHAIR: So those are internal control issues within that booth?

Mr Orr : Yes, that is right.

CHAIR: I will park that for now because, obviously, we are finding a lot of these examples of procedural breakdown in polling places. So that was the first one. What was the second one?

Mr Orr : There was a special hospital team in the division of Greenway which issued one incorrect ballot paper.

Mr GILES: One?

Mr Orr : One.

CHAIR: Was it only one because it was identified?

Mr Orr : Yes.

CHAIR: But was it identified by the polling official, or by the voter?

Mr Orr : I will have to clarify that. I can come back to you on that.

CHAIR: I am happy for you to take that on notice.

Mr Orr : They issued a Parramatta paper instead of the division of Greenway paper.

CHAIR: If you could take that on notice, that would be great. And the third one?

Mr Orr : That was also a special hospital team. It issued approximately 50 Greenway votes instead of Chifley.

CHAIR: What happened to those? Were they identified in time so that—

Mr Orr : No.

CHAIR: No. So another 50 voters voted informally on the wrong ballot paper?

Mr Orr : Yes.

CHAIR: Were there just those three incidents, or were there more?

Mr Orr : There was one further one that I am aware of, at Fairfield prepoll voting centre, which is a multiple prepoll voting centre. I would have to get the details of the divisions. There were approximately 20 ballot papers mis-issued.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: When getting the details, could you just indicate for us the margin of the winning candidate there?

Mr Orr : Sure. I can say straightaway that in all those there was a great margin. But, yes, I will find that for you.

CHAIR: In two other states there were issues that we have identified already, that the Senate ballot papers were also incorrectly issued. One was finally picked up at the polling place by a voter after a number had gone through. But in Western Australia it was only picked up by a scrutineer after they had been rejected by the scanning machine. Have you had any with Senate ballot papers at all?

Mr Orr : I am only aware of 11 Senate ballot papers, and this is from observations at the central Senate scrutiny location. These are seen to be random mistakes.

Four of those 11 were issued at four separate locations at prepoll voting centres in New South Wales—all different.

CHAIR: So were they for other states?

Mr Orr : Those 11 comprised six Victorian, four Queensland and one South Australian.

CHAIR: But, again, this was not picked up at the polling place itself, it was only picked up at the scanning—

Mr Orr : Yes, and assuming there has only been one I would like to come back to that point about mistakes and prepoll voting centres, if I can?

CHAIR: Yes, please.

Mr Orr : The other seven of that 11 came to fruition as received in six divisions as declaration votes. Somewhere these votes have been issued to New South Wales electors as declaration votes, they have come back to the owning division, the votes have been admitted and then when they were opened they were found to have been issued with another state.

Obviously, 11 is 11 too many—as all these other errors are. But any prepoll voting centre—each of those locations has 158 ballot papers. I am just trying to paint a picture—if they are issuing votes, they are busy; they have eight lots of Senate ballot paper behind them; five of them, I think, were a metre wide; and all black and white. I guess, in a rush, I can understand your point about how mistakes could be made—small numbers, not larger numbers perhaps, but individuals. They are not easily distinguishable if you are in a rush. That is what I am aware of.

CHAIR: Have you had an opportunity to analyse nationally—this may be a question for Mr Kitson—all of the votes that were informal in the end through this scanning process? I think we have already discussed that. If you can take on notice—the breakdown of those ones, with which ones were informal because they were the wrong ballot papers, or the reason for informality.

Mr Kitson : I believe we took that on notice.

CHAIR: You do have that information here?

Mr Orr : I am aware that, in New South Wales, of the informal ballot papers for the New South Wales Senate, 66 per cent were blank ballot papers.

CHAIR: I will leave that one on notice.

Mr MORTON: Thank you Mr Orr; congratulations to you and your staff on the rollout of the election from the commission's perspective. It is a big effort, and we are wanting to know some of the things for which we can make recommendations to make the process easier. The example we are talking about—of Senate ballot papers—there could well be recommendations for making sure that the state is more visible. We have had suggestions of different-coloured ears in the corner of Senate ballot papers in order to prevent that in the future.

Are you aware of the form, Acknowledgment and declaration of key obligations upon engagement?

Mr Orr : Yes.

Mr MORTON: There is a particular declaration where staff are asked to declare that they are not currently publicly active in political affairs, and they do not intend to engage in such activities during their engagement with the AEC, but if should such a situation arise during their engagement and they wish to publicly engage in political activities, or where there may be a perception that they are involved in political activities, they will discuss that matter with their manager or supervisor immediately. A couple of questions on this theme. How many staff, in total, full time and temporary, would the AEC have engaged?

Mr Orr : We had about 30,000 positions, but many worked in multiple positions, so it would be 28,000, I guess, and approximately 23,000 on polling day.

Mr MORTON: It was 23,000 on polling day; so I will say 28,000 staff in total—individual people. How many of those people would be in a supervisory or management role? If I was the most junior staff member, who would I identify as a supervisor, and how many people hold that position and above?

Mr Orr : On polling day, there are 2,319 officers in charge, so, on polling day, there are about 2,300 supervisors, plus mobile team leaders and interstate voting centre leaders. So, there are probably more than 2,500 supervisors just on polling day. And, of course, in the lead-up to the election, there are the staff working in a divisional office—there would be 47 of those DROs. We also have prepoll OICs as well, and electoral liaison officers and electoral visitor liaison officers. So, there are hundreds in the lead-up to polling day, and thousands on polling day.

Mr MORTON: In your mind, what does it mean for you? If there is a perception that someone is involved in political activities, how would that manifest itself? What does that include, in you mind?

Mr Orr : To put it in the picture on polling day, when there are the highest number of people, it would be someone who was working for us who expressed political opinions, or attempted to turn up to work wearing a political slogan, or something like that, on their clothing. But I am not aware of any instances in election 2016 where this was an issue at all.

Mr MORTON: Someone can suspend their political activities for the engagement of their employment with you, but does that mean they could have been politically engaged and active the week prior, under this declaration?

Mr Orr : That is an interesting point; 'politically active and seen to be' is an important part of it. We would not know the political leanings of any of our staff. The issue about proactively being seen in the environment—from my experience, there have been a number of times when it has been brought to my attention that a temporary staff member has been seen in that light, and, on those couple of occasions, they have been removed immediately. Our reaction is, if there is any possible issue, to just to remove that person from that position altogether or move them to another position where they are not involved in actually handling any ballot material.

Mr MORTON: Would you have a particular issue if I were able to identify a member of the senior executive of the Electoral Commission and then identify their political persuasion through their actions online? Would that concern you? Would that create a perception of political activity?

Mr Orr : I guess, depending on what was in that, there could be. I know at the last election we had an issue like that, not with the SES but with a polling staff member and comments made on Facebook, which ended up with me giving her a call and telling her she would not be working the next day. If things come to our attention, we will take action.

Mr MORTON: Of all of those supervisors and managers that we were talking about, if they had a particular report to them under this declaration that someone was involved, would you expect to be made aware of every report to every manager and supervisor?

Mr Orr : Not necessarily. The circumstance on polling day is that there are 23,000 people turning up to work at 2,300 locations. I would be very surprised if anyone turned up not initialling that particular form, or it would be questionable. This is about—as you mentioned and you got it out—engaging on that day. As I said to you before, I am not aware of any feedback from this particular election about any of those matters. I would expect in the first instance that the OIC would probably check with their polling place liaison officer or their division returning officer and it would be handled at that level. It is just the scale of activity in New South Wales. Whilst there is certainly a hierarchal approach to escalation of issues, many things would be resolved at a local level, and I would not necessarily hear about them.

Mr MORTON: Are you aware of any third parties, associated entities—I will be specific: the CPSU—using Australian Electoral Commission resources to communicate political messages?

Mr Orr : No, not at all.

Mr MORTON: None of your staff have received political messages from the CPSU on their AEC email addresses, computers, phones?

Mr Orr : I cannot say what staff have received directly in email from anybody, let alone the union, so I cannot comment on that. I just do not know what emails come directly to staff. I cannot comment.

Mr MORTON: Mr Kitson, are you aware of any?

Mr Kitson : I think we gave in evidence the other day some advice that we understand that CPSU members within the AEC had received some material from the CPSU which encouraged them to join some campaigning. I would like to make the point that the way in which we operate our interpretation of the Fair Work Act and our engagement with unions is that they are permitted to communicate with their members within the workplace. We have a vigorous dialogue with the CPSU, particularly during the recently concluded enterprise bargaining arrangements, in which they obviously wished to present their view on the proposal that we were putting to staff. But we worked very carefully, line by line, with them to remove anything which could be politically contentious, which might offer a view on the government's position in relation to bargaining, so that that which was carried over AEC systems, and therefore authorised generally by me, was indeed politically neutral and simply offered a factual carriage of that information. I think it is reasonable to say that the CPSU, whilst looking to promote their particular perspective on the issues at hand, were diligent in observing and respecting the neutrality of the AEC and the staff members.

Mr MORTON: Have there been any issues with a particular staff member on this matter of political neutrality, where the matter has not been able to be resolved between the supervisor, the manager and the staff member or between the commission and the staff member? Has there been any issue of political neutrality where the staff member has not accepted the position of the commission?

Mr Kitson : I am not aware of an existing staff member. I am aware of another matter, where we declined to engage someone who was seeking employment, because of our perception that they could not present a politically neutral perspective.

Mr MORTON: What happened when you declined to employ that staff member that was politically active?

Mr Kitson : We had a series of exchanges via email and telephone, in which I think they protested their perspective. You will, I hope, understand that I perhaps wish to be circumspect in what I might say here, because that is a matter of ongoing contest between the AEC and that individual.

Mr MORTON: So that matter has not been concluded and finished with?

Mr Kitson : It has concluded in terms of our employment but not in terms of external appeal mechanisms.

Mr MORTON: I wonder if it might be of more comfort to you if we learned more about this in camera.

Mr Kitson : It would.

CHAIR: We will suspend the proceedings briefly to go in camera.

Proceedings suspended from 09:50 to 10:03

Mr DICK: I have some questions regarding the increasing number of voters. You said there were up to 270,000 additional voters on the roll and I think, at 96 per cent, one of the highest—

Mr Orr : It is the highest for New South Wales, yes.

Mr DICK: I think the figures you gave earlier today were 194 early voting stations and 140 mobile. I did not get the number of polling places.

Mr Orr : Two thousand, three hundred and nineteen.

Mr DICK: Are you able to do a comparison with the figures from 2013? Is it an increase or a decrease in those numbers?

Mr Orr : It is a decrease in the number of static polling places. Between each election, we go through a review process, and that has already been raised previously in hearings around the national process we did of reviewing polling places. Between 2013 and 2016, there has been a reduction in static polling places in New South Wales. In terms of prepoll voting locations, it went from 184 to 194. I should point out that the numbers include, in the prepoll, individual multiple booths as a separate location, although they might be in the same premises. Similarly, the static polling place numbers may also count one location as two if it is a dual booth. I just mention that by way of background information. In terms of the mobile teams, there was certainly an increase in remote mobile teams. I cannot comment on the variation in special hospital teams. We took further advantage of the extended mobile team period available for special hospital teams that came to us a few elections ago, and we looked at trying to have fewer teams but longer voting periods for those teams. I can get that number for you as a separate number.

Mr DICK: What was the number of polling places?

Mr Orr : It was 2,319.

Mr DICK: What was the number from the last election?

Mr Orr : It was 2,705.

Mr DICK: That is a drop of almost 400. With an increase of a quarter of a million extra voters and a cut of 400 polling places, would you be able to provide evidence about the average length of time in queues. I think we had this evidence in Tasmania, Madam Chair. I think it was approximately 30 minutes in Tasmania.

CHAIR: It was 30 minutes, yes, and a bit longer in Victoria.

Mr Orr : We have done some analysis. By way of background, in New South Wales we did an initial review of the polling places immediately after the 2013 election, and that resulted in a number being abolished. Some of those, as I said, were dual polling places, because our policy is to review every dual polling place between events to make sure it still qualifies at our policy level to continue with that number of votes. Some of these reductions would only be that the static part would still be there but the dual part of it would have disappeared. In terms of the national review that we undertook, under the criteria that we used I received around proposed 750 cases for abolition. They came to me as either retention cases or abolition cases from the relevant divisional returning officer. Of those, we abolished approximately 250 as a result of that. Now, most of those 250 were in rural areas.

In terms of the analysis I have done to date, about a quarter of those had some relativity to polling places where there was queuing. However, the way that our processes work is that the state is divided up into catchments. So, when a polling place is abolished, that catchment—in terms of numbers of electors—is then moved to another polling place. If there were, say, 500 electors from an abolished polling place transferred to another polling place, its staffing level would then rise to manage that. For the polling places, one of the reductions was that straightaway over 300 OICs are not required. For the worker bees, if you like—the issuing officers—there is a formulaic approach to the number of electors. It allocates them so many polling officials, ordinary issuing officers, declaration vote issuing officers and so on. My view on the queuing is that, predominantly, we had some absent declaration vote queuing because of the impact of borders. But, in terms of ordinary vote queuing, my observation and the feedback from my divisional returning officers overwhelmingly is that it was down to the extra time taken to complete the Senate ballot paper. The queuing was not so much to get to the issuing officer; it was waiting to then get to a screen to vote because voters were taking longer in the screens to complete their Senate ballot papers.

Mr DICK: You did not answer my question. What was the time? Was there an average length of time in queues?

Mr Orr : I am sorry.

Mr DICK: With a quarter of a million extra voters on the role—or 270,000—and a cut of 400 polling places, I am trying to ascertain if there is any correlation with people lining up. I understand your point about the Senate ballot papers.

Mr Orr : In terms of relative queuing times, I do not have that analysis between 2013 and 2016. In terms of the longest queues, there were about half a dozen divisions that recorded queues longer than an hour. The longest queue was more than an hour in the locations.

Mr DICK: Do you know which divisions they were?

Mr Orr : I can give them to you on notice, if that is okay. The longest queue time was 90 minutes at a polling place in Western Sydney.

Mr DICK: Where was that polling location?

Mr Orr : Maryland North. In terms of looking at some analysis, it seemed that about 400 polling places had 15-minute plus queue times between 11 o'clock and one o'clock. For this election, between 11 o'clock and one o'clock seemed to be the key time. Typically, there is always queuing around eight o'clock because people are wait to vote, as you would know, and, I guess, get it over and done with. However, it may have been because it is winter and it is a bit colder in Sydney perhaps. That may have pushed it out a bit. Of the approximately 400 15-minute queues, that transferred to about 80 having longer than 30 minute queues. There was a lot around the 15 minutes to 30 minutes. I have not done the same analysis for 2013. The feedback from across the state was there were much longer queues than I have been familiar with over the last three elections.

Mr DICK: Longer queues than normal?

Mr Orr : Yes, absolutely.

CHAIR: I have a follow-on question. With the 400 reduction in polling places on election day, you said that you had 30,000 temporary staff engaged for the election period. How did that compare to 2013? Did you have the same number of staff or less or more?

Mr Orr : We had about 480 fewer staff—fewer positions filled. As I said, there were over 300 fewer OICs. Most of those were OICs. With the way the staffing figures work, there could also be fewer 2ICs because the other booths would absorb that. All in all, it was pretty similar. The growth in pre-poll votes also impacted on the number of people who attended polling places on the day. In fact, turnout was lower than we would have hoped.

Senator RHIANNON: You explained earlier how roll divergence for New South Wales is being reduced and you explained how there is a swap of data. I am interested in the steps being taken to standardise how the data is brought on to the rolls, considering New South Wales EC and the AEC have different ways of collecting the data. Is it moving towards consistency?

Mr Orr : There have been ongoing discussions between the national office and the New South Wales Electoral Commission around how that is going. The view of the Electoral Commission of New South Wales is to move towards a totally independent roll, as I understand it. They also have different business rules around the data they use.

Senator RHIANNON: When you say 'totally independent', could you explain what that means, please?

Mr Orr : They would like to have their own electoral roll. That was their stated aim to the previous commissioner. I do not normally get involved in these discussions. It is usually done directly between the national office, roll management staff and the relevant staff in the New South Wales Electoral Commission.

Senator RHIANNON: From the figures that you gave earlier, with people turning up and thinking that they were on the roll and they were not—that is a problem—and when you use the term 'totally independent' it sounds like there is a divergence with regard to consistency and working the same way.

Mr Orr : We share information, but we have different business rules and we start at different times and under different circumstances, and to some respects we are still trying to catch up the people who the state may have taken on earlier. We are trying to narrow the gap and, as I mentioned earlier, we have been reasonably successful in doing so, although I do acknowledge that is still a very large gap between the New South Wales electoral roll and the federal electoral roll. Yes, it does cause confusion, particularly at federal election day.

Senator RHIANNON: Mr Kitson, is New South Wales the state where there is the greatest divergence in terms of how the data is collected between the AEC and the state electoral commission?

Mr Kitson : Greatest divergence in the process or the numbers?

Senator RHIANNON: In the process.

CHAIR: And the numbers.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes, and the numbers—thank you.

Mr Kitson : Victoria has the greatest divergence currently. Victoria and New South Wales have, for the last several years, had the greatest divergence, although Western Australia has had that until recently.

I would not characterise New South Wales as having a greater divergence of practice and process than the other states. The issue for the Commonwealth is our ability to accept trusted sources of data and for the commissioner to use that to properly enrol somebody. New South Wales and the other states have a different approach to what they regard as trusted data. The Commonwealth—the AEC—has taken a view that we need stronger proofs of entitlement to enrolment, and that is the primary cause of the divergence. It is essentially our disinclination to take data that we do not believe that we can completely validate.

Senator RHIANNON: Does that mean you think that the New South Wales state roll does not have the same integrity as the federal New South Wales roll?

Mr Kitson : I would not wish to comment on that.

CHAIR: I suspect that Mr Kitson already has, in his very carefully worded answer.

Senator RHIANNON: Because I know we are running out of time, could you take this on notice: were all your polling stations—prepolling and on the day—accessible to all people?

Mr Orr : No, not in terms of our ratings. The great majority of the polling places—87 per cent—were rated as accessible with assistance. Only two per cent were rated as fully accessible, and there were 11 per cent that were rated as not accessible, which predominantly means steps into the polling place. 'With assistance' may mean a lip as small as a centimetre; that would make it 'with assistance'. It could mean that the physical distance between the car park and the polling venue exceeded the requirement. That may have been the only reason. The key advance the AEC has made is that, following our routine inspection between events of every polling location, at the last election the reasons for ratings were placed on the internet so people could observe the reasons for why and then make a judgement about whether that, given their circumstances, would still enable them to access that polling place.

Senator RHIANNON: I understand that you have given a lot of attention to the fact that there are such a low number that are fully accessible. Is that because fully accessible ones are just not available, or is it a cost issue, or is there some other reason?

Mr Orr : Given that we use public buildings to a high degree—public schools' brand-new BER halls, for example—it is just the fact that the stringent guidelines are such that pretty much everything has to be perfect to meet the requirements. From our assessment, many of these school buildings, community halls et cetera do not meet the requirements. As I said, our aim is to get better facilities, and of course we are subject to a non-fixed election date, which also makes it problematic. Some of the better facilities could be booked for weddings or community events.

Senator RHIANNON: If we had fixed-term elections, could that assist in terms of more polling booths having a high level of accessibility?

Mr Orr : It would allow us the time and surety of making bookings; that is correct.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I just want an update on the Cowper absentee ballot papers. I understand there was a complaint, and I am just wondering how many people were unable to vote due to the error that occurred and if you can give us an update on where the complaint is up to.

Mr Orr : This is around shortage of declaration envelopes?

Senator RHIANNON: Yes.

Mr Orr : If I can come back to the background of the redistribution—

CHAIR: Mr Orr, I would be grateful if you could make it very brief background.

Mr Orr : Okay. The short story is that there were some shortages of declaration envelopes in some polling places in the division of Lyne—in fact, not in Cowper. They were in Lyne. Following the redistribution, the Lyne border is very close to the southern and western edge of Port Macquarie. For example, Wauchope was in Lyne. Bonny Hills and Laurieton, for those who know the area, were in Lyne as well. So there were issues. Basically, people drove out or would appear out of Port Macquarie. They did not vote there but came into Lyne and decided they would stop and vote—or, conversely, people travelling up from Sydney for school holidays et cetera, perhaps. But, yes, there were some circumstances. The feedback I have had is that most of those we stopped as soon as we could. Some were only out for short periods of time. Some electors were advised that the nearest polling place was X, so they could go there, or they might come back, et cetera. Yes, there were—

Senator RHIANNON: How many in total do you think? That is the last question.

CHAIR: No, no. This is actually a very interesting point. Again, it follows on from some other evidence. Mr Orr, obviously there is a large story to unpack. Would you mind taking that on notice for the committee and providing more detail?

Mr Orr : Certainly.

CHAIR: And if there are any specifics, Senator Rhiannon will get them on notice to you to flesh this out.

Mr Orr : Sure.

CHAIR: Very quickly, Senator Leyonhjelm.

Senator LEYONHJELM: I just want to pursue this business about the queues that you were referring to earlier and your thoughts as to the explanation. You mentioned the time to vote for the Senate, was it the change in voting, because the ballot papers were not larger? So you are assuming that it was a change in methodology.

Mr Orr : The feedback is that almost 98 per cent of people in New South Wales have voted 1 above the line. In terms of making a judgement when they walk into a polling place, 'I'm going to vote 1.' The 'how to vote' will say which column it was and, 98 per cent of the time, even though it was a long ballot paper, they could go, 'Okay, column K, got it: 1.' On this occasion they had to find number 1, but then they had to surf the paper, move the ballot paper because of its width, take that physical time and make a judgement about which of the next five numbers, at least, they wished to complete—

Senator LEYONHJELM: If you take into account the fact there were no more parties on that ballot paper than 2013 and that there was a higher proportion of people who did prepoll voting—so on the day of voting there were, presumably, fewer—that would suggest that the delays associated with the change of voting system were greater than simply the queues reflected.

Mr Orr : Certainly. Everyone I have spoken to socially have also confirmed the fact that they had to stop and think about where they would allocate their preferences. In fact, it is a national issue—it is not just a New South Wales issue. Nationally, queuing was the thing of the election.

Senator LEYONHJELM: Anecdotally, I have never seen queues so big in my electorate. I will leave it there, thank you.

CHAIR: Just on that point, Mr Dick has already asked some questions on notice in terms of further information about the queuing. So if you could take that on notice, particularly for New South Wales, any of the reasons for that and any particular areas that were problems and any more information that you could provide that would shed further light on that, that would be much appreciated.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Thanks, Mr Orr, and thanks for your evidence, as always. If you have the answers to my questions I would appreciate them now, but if you do not have them readily at hand please take them on notice. I am interested in double voting and the incidents of double voting in New South Wales.

Mr Orr : The apparent multiple voting is a work in progress still. This is a delayed process, as you would be aware. After we went through and sorted out the marks that were clearly just smudges, et cetera, we wrote to approximately 6,700 electors. From that, we have come back and we have been able to match up positive matches with non-voters and multiple voters—that was a couple of thousand. At the moment we are still finalising it. We are under 3,000 or 4,000 still, but it is reducing, and these are all apparent. I review all of these when they proceed to the stage where we get the evidence back, and a lot of them are where there is just confusion by the elector. Some of these we rated as apparent, but the actual second vote has not been counted—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Cutting to the chase: are there any that have been so serious in your mind that you have referred them to the AFP?

Mr Orr : We are in that stage at the moment.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: So not yet?

Mr Orr : Not yet.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: When there is evidence of serious double voting do you advise the candidates and the political party?

Mr Orr : That has not been our practice to date. Typically, the AEC publicly has always provided a separate submission at the relevant time to this committee on multiple voting. As you are aware, it takes some time to progress, so typically it is some time after the actual polling day.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Mr Orr or Mr Kitson, can you tell me if political party scrutineers are allowed to view the envelopes of declaration votes to assist your paid staff in their decision on whether that envelope is valid or not?

Mr Orr : Yes, our scrutineers are allowed to witness the declaration vote-checking processing—not to assist, but to observe.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You are absolutely confident of that?

Mr Orr : Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Did you have any reports of difficulties with hospital voting? I noticed you mentioned a couple of special hospitals with different vote papers, but actually getting the vote? Is there a provision of the act which refers specifically to hospital voting and if hospital patients are not given a vote that it does not impact on the result? If so, which one?

Mr Orr : The act discusses mobile polling, basically at the discretion of the commissioner. It was changed some years ago.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Sorry?

Mr Orr : The act talks about mobile polling, and so then it is determined—

CHAIR: Senator Macdonald, given the time and the complexity of this, would it be appropriate to ask Mr Orr, and possibly Mr Kitson as well, to take that question on notice? It is obviously a recurring theme, so get something on the record on notice?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I thought Mr Orr was just about to answer for New South Wales. But I would indicate to Mr Kitson that I am going to have these same questions everywhere, so perhaps you could do it nationally—except that I do want to ask these specifically in Brisbane, and certainly in Townsville.

Mr Orr : I will only cover time frames. The same time pressures emerged in the special hospitals as they did on polling day—queues. People are taking longer to complete. So estimates are always done—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Are you under an obligation to get votes from people who are inpatients at hospital on polling day?

Mr Orr : No. It is our policy that we will service hospitals.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: But you are under no obligation?

Mr Orr : It allows us to attend hospitals, but there is no obligation to attend hospitals.

CHAIR: Is that your last question, Senator Macdonald?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I think you are saying it is, Chair!

CHAIR: We do have a lot of members here with a lot of questions. If you would like to ask another question, or put it on notice, perhaps—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I think I have asked the questions I needed to.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Macdonald.

Thank you very much, Mr Orr and Mr Kitson, for your attendance here today. You have both been asked to take a considerable amount of issues on notice of interest to the committee and I ask that you forward those to the committee by Friday, 2 December. Mr Orr, on behalf of the committee, I would be grateful if you could take back to your staff the appreciation and thanks of the committee for the successful conduct of the last federal election here in New South Wales. Thank you for your appearance today. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and you will have the opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: Just on, on notice: could I ask the Australian Electoral Commission to model the effect that moving to a four-year term would have for you?

CHAIR: In terms of redistributions. Thank you for raising that today, because, as the Deputy Chair has said, we will be looking further at the impact. I think the committee would be very grateful for further advice on—

Mr Kitson : Expressly on redistribution?

CHAIR: On redistribution timing and the impact that it has. We will talk about that separately. Thank you very much for appearing.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Advice, too, on eight-year terms. That would be great.

Proceedings suspended fr om 10 : 28 to 10 : 35