Thank you very much, Chair, members, and the New Zealand electoral commissioner. Good morning from Canberra. Thanks for the invitation to appear today.
As members of the committee may be aware and as you just said, I am the commissioner of the Australian Electoral Commission, also known as the AEC, which is how I will refer to it today. I'm responsible for federal elections and referendums in Australia. In Australia we also have seven other electoral commissions at the state and territory level. I'm also responsible for certain industrial elections, but I won't be talking about that aspect today.
I understand that your mandate is to examine viable alternative voting systems, mandatory voting, and electronic voting. In my opening statement today, I'll touch on all of those in some way, but first I might just explore the Australian electoral system a little further.
As you mentioned, at the federal level we have a bicameral system, with a lower house that we call the House of Representatives and an upper house that we call the Senate. Both houses are elected by the people, but they are elected through two different systems of voting.
In the House of Representatives, we have a full preferential voting system. It requires voters to individually number and rank all candidates according to their preferences. A candidate is elected if he or she gains more than 50% of the formal vote. If a candidate doesn't gain 50% of the vote based on first preferences, the candidate with the least number of votes is excluded, and the candidate's preferences are then distributed. The process of preference distribution continues until a candidate achieves more than 50% of the vote.
Under this system, a voter must complete all boxes on the ballot paper for the vote to be formal and included in the count. Of course, some voters don't include all the boxes, and we refer to these as informal votes. There are savings provisions in the legislation that can save certain votes in certain circumstances. However, some ballot papers do remain informal.
The rate of informality is relatively low and consistent at about 5% for federal elections for the House of Representatives. For the 2016 election, which we're still in the process of conducting, the informality rate hasn't been determined, but I'm expecting it to be around the same, if not slightly lower in some cases. In some individual seats, the rate of informality remains high, and there are various factors impacting on that informality. I'm happy to expand on that later on if members are interested.
In the Senate, we use a system of proportional representation to elect candidates. Essentially, this system elects a number of candidates to represent one constituency after they receive a set proportion of the vote. For over three decades, group voting tickets were used to support a system whereby a voter's preferences would continue until all vacant positions were filled. However, in March of this year, new legislation introduced a partial preferential system that enabled voters to determine where their preferences flowed and finished. In my view, it was one of the largest changes to the Australian electoral system since 1994, and we had four months to implement it in time for a July 2 election this year.
There are various elements to this reform, including the introduction of ballot paper scanning for the first time at the federal level in Australia and the implementation of a very large national education campaign. Again, I'm happy to discuss that later if the committee is interested.
In recent weeks there's been some commentary—within Australia, at least—about the perception that the AEC is not making sufficient progress in the count of results for the federal election. I want to clarify that the speed of the AEC's count is driven by the electoral act itself and is not a result of the type of preferential and proportional voting system we have. Yes, conducting a count under a preferential system can take longer than a count under the first-past-the-post system. However, the period of time it takes to finalize the result is more due to other aspects of our legislation, most notably that voters can pretty much vote from anywhere in Australia or around the world for their home electorate. To facilitate this, the AEC undertakes a complex exchange of votes after the election.
Votes can also be received up to 13 days after election day, and the AEC is responsible for sending these votes to the correct division, where the voter's entitlement to vote is confirmed. That means you can vote on one side of Australia, but for that vote can be physically counted, I have to send the vote physically over to the other side of Australia to its home division to be counted.
All of that must occur before the counting of those votes can even commence. In addition, the number of early votes now being cast continues to rise, and this has significant logistical impacts. All of those envelopes need to go back to their home division, and this requirement creates difficulties for us.
I'll now move to the subject of mandatory voting. In Australia we refer to that as compulsory voting.
In Australia it is compulsory to enrol and to vote in federal elections. Compulsory enrolment at the federal level for Australian citizens was introduced in 1918, followed by compulsory voting in 1924.
At the last election we estimate that about 95% of all eligible electors were enrolled. That's 15.6 million people. That is the largest number of electors we've ever had enrolled and probably the most complete electoral roll we've ever had in Australia's history. It's the responsibility of every individual to update their own enrolment details; however, we also have a system of federal direct enrolment and update, and that assists the process. We use trusted third party data, such as driver's licence information, to enrol or update an elector's details.
Under current legislation there is no avenue, really, for successful prosecution of eligible electors who are not enrolled. The reason I say this is that enrolment is an absolute defence for any charge of not enrolling, so if we go down the process of taking someone to court, quite often they'll essentially enrol on the courthouse steps, which is then an absolute defence for non-enrolment.
Compulsory voting and enrolment is seen as a normal part of Australian political culture. There is lots of evidence to suggest continued support for compulsory voting: in 2013, the last time we did surveys, about 70% or thereabouts of the population indicated support for compulsory voting. At the most recent federal election, which we've just had, turnout was around 90%, but we'll have to confirm that over the coming weeks as we finish the processes with that election.
Under our system of compulsory voting, those enrolled electors who did not vote are sent a non-voter letter. It requires the electors to either respond and provide a valid excuse for not voting or pay a very small $20 fine. A small number of those voters who don't pay the fine are then prosecuted, and I think we went through a full prosecution of about 3,000 people at the last election.
In Australia our electoral matters committee has considered the issue of voluntary voting a number of times; however, the issue has never been pursued by our federal Parliament.
I might move now to electronic voting.
Electronic voting is a matter for the Australian Parliament, not for the AEC, and it would require a change to our legislation. At the federal level we do not use electronic voting, nor do we use Internet voting. In 2014 our electoral matters committee inquired into the topic of electronic voting, and I will just quote from that for one moment. It found that “irrespective of one's philosophical view about electronic voting, ...there can be no widespread introduction of electronic voting in the near term without massive costs and unacceptable security risks.”
However, in recent weeks our Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition have both pledged their support for examining some form of electronic voting, again following perceptions about the length of time it takes for us to return the result. I cannot speculate as to what model would be introduced, how it would be introduced or when, as this is a matter for Parliament.
At the state and territory level, some commissions have trialed electronic voting. In the Australian Capital Territory, where Canberra is located, electronic voting has been used in early voting centres since 2001. They use a system of personal computers. In New South Wales, Internet voting was trialed in 2011 and 2015 for particular categories of voters, those who have a disability and those who are more than 20 kilometres from a polling place. My understanding is that well over 250,000 voters availed themselves of Internet voting at the last New South Wales state election. I am aware of significant media commentary surrounding security aspects of this system, but I'm unable to comment further. I don't own that system.
We don't have electronic voting, but many aspects of our electoral process are already electronic. We've enabled voters to enrol online for a number of years, and voters can also apply for a postal vote online. The increased use of the electronic forms by the Australian community has simplified the process of these transactions without diminishing the controls in place.
We also introduced the scanning of Senate ballot papers for the first time in the 2016 election. As I'm speaking to you, we are still running very large scanning centres in each of the states, scanning Senate ballot papers for the 2016 election.
We've also deployed electronic certified lists at the last two elections. These are an electronic version of the electoral roll, and they contain a list of electors entitled to vote. I think it's a great initiative. It provides the ability to search for and mark off an elector's name, provides a real-time update to a central copy of the certified list, and, where we can, enables the printing of House of Representatives ballot papers on demand. At the recent election, we had about 1,500 devices. It is expensive but worthwhile.
There are two other aspects of our electoral system that I might touch on to provide a flavour for what we do.
Under the electoral act, the Electoral Commission is wholly responsible for undertaking the redistribution of electoral boundaries. It's an apolitical process and has no involvement from political parties or politicians. In particular, changes to divisional boundaries do not require the approval of Parliament. Submissions and objections to boundaries are invited for consideration; however, the ultimate decision rests with the Electoral Commission, a three-person commission chaired by a judge.
Another aspect of our work is managing the funding and disclosure regime of our electoral legislation. It includes registration of parties and party logos and a disclosure of expenditures and returns for an electoral campaign and ongoing expenses during the year. The scheme is designed to inform the public about financial dealings of political parties, candidates, and others involved in the process. We are responsible for managing and running this independent apolitical process. As with other areas of our electoral system, any changes to the funding and disclosure system are also a matter for Parliament.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to appear today. I'm happy to take any questions or provide any other information that the committee may find helpful.