The objective of the audit was to assess the adequacy and effectiveness of the AEC’s implementation of the recommendation made in ANAO Audit Report No. 28 2009–10 relating to the transport and storage of completed ballot papers.

Summary

Introduction

1. The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) is responsible for conducting Federal Elections and referendums, maintaining the Commonwealth electoral roll and administering political funding and disclosure requirements in accordance with the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (the Electoral Act). The AEC also provides a range of electoral information and education programs in Australia, as well as in support of Australia’s international interests. Its stated outcome is to:

Maintain an impartial and independent electoral system for eligible voters through active electoral roll management, efficient delivery of polling services and targeted education and public awareness programs.

2. The AEC has a three‑person Commission comprising the Chairperson1, the Electoral Commissioner and a non‑judicial member. It operates through a three tier structure of a national office in Canberra, State and Territory offices and Divisional Offices (both standalone and co‑located in the form of larger work units) responsible for electoral administration across Australia’s 150 electoral divisions. The AEC employed nearly 850 ongoing staff as at 30 June 2013.

3. Each Federal Election is a complex logistical event, and the challenges faced by the AEC in conducting elections are increased by the uncertain timing and the short period of time between an election being called and polling day. These circumstances make more difficult the tasks of recruiting and training a large temporary workforce of some 80 000 people for the 2013 Election and operating more than 9100 polling places.

4. In April 2010, ANAO tabled a performance audit report on the AEC’s preparation for and conduct of the 2007 Federal General Election.2 The audit report concluded that the state of the roll was the most significant long‑term issue facing the AEC and that the AEC’s existing approaches to improving enrolment rates had become less effective (as well as becoming more costly). ANAO made nine recommendations, including four relating to the AEC improving the accuracy and completeness of the electoral roll. Other recommendations included the AEC improving its workforce planning, enhancing the accessibility and suitability of polling booths and scrutiny centres as well as the AEC identifying and assessing options that would provide greater physical security over the transport and security of completed ballot papers.

5. The audit report was tabled some four months prior to the 21 August 2010 Election. In the context of its inquiry into the conduct of the 2010 Election3, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM or the Committee) was informed by the AEC in February 2011 that the August 2010 Federal Election had impacted on it progressing the implementation of the ANAO recommendations, but that the organisation was now focussed on this work. Subsequently, the AEC’s audit committee was advised at its March 2012 meeting that action on all ANAO recommendations had been completed.

Issues concerning the transport of polling material for the 2010 Election

6. The AEC’s February 2011 submission to JSCEM‘s inquiry into the 2010 Election identified three instances of issues arising in relation to polling material after polling day. One involved House of Representatives ballot papers going missing after they had been counted on polling night4 and two related to the transport services of election materials by contractors. Specifically:

  • in Darwin a box of pre‑poll vote declaration forms were found to have fallen off the transport vehicle of a private contractor after this material was discovered on the roadside near Darwin Airport with over 730 forms recovered by the AEC but ‘around’ another 100 missing forms were not recovered; and
  • after it was reported to the AEC that an employee of the Perth Transit Authority had been collecting completed Senate ballot papers from the railway track which runs between Mitchell freeway lanes to the north of Perth city, the AEC recovered those ballot papers that had been collected and established that the situation arose after a box of Western Australian (WA) Senate ballot papers had ‘dropped off’ an open utility in transit from the Moore Divisional Office to storage.

7. The AEC’s submission to JSCEM outlined that the incident which occurred in Darwin involved a contractor breaching a contractual requirement to use ‘fully enclosed, locked and secured vehicles’. In relation to the 2010 incident involving WA Senate ballot papers, the AEC’s JSCEM submission noted that the contract required the AEC material be kept secure during retrieval and transport but did not state that transport must be via covered vehicles. This was the case notwithstanding that the AEC had an ‘expectation’ that any vehicle used to carry AEC materials would be an enclosed truck or van.

Votes missing from the recount for the 2013 Western Australian Senate Election

8. The 7 September 2013 Election for the fifth and sixth Senate places for WA was close. Following the conduct of the polling place count and subsequent fresh scrutiny counts of completed ballot papers, the Australian Electoral Commissioner agreed to requests for a recount made by two candidates. The recount decision was made in light of the ‘criticality of particular Senate candidate exclusion counts and the small margins involved in determining Senators’ elect’.

9. During the recount it emerged that 1370 ballot papers were missing compared with those that had been included in the earlier counts. This comprised 1139 ballot papers from three polling places and one declaration vote count in the Division of Pearce, and 231 ballot papers from one polling place in the Division of Forrest. The outcome of the recount was that the two candidates that had requested the recount were to be elected to the fifth and sixth Senate places, at the expense of the two candidates that had earlier been announced by the AEC as winning the fifth and sixth places.

10. In early November 2013, the AEC commissioned Mr Mick Keelty AO APM to undertake an inquiry into the circumstances of the missing ballot papers identified during the recount of Senate votes in WA. The Keelty report was publicly released on 6 December 2013. It concluded that the processes used by the WA AEC office created a situation where the ultimate fate of the missing ballot papers is not likely to be ever fully explained. The report included 32 findings and recommendations.

Conduct of April 2014 WA Senate Election

11. In mid‑November 2013, the AEC petitioned the High Court of Australia (acting as the Court of Disputed Returns) seeking an order that the WA Senate Election of six senators be declared void. An order was issued by His Honour Justice Hayne on 20 February 2014 voiding the 2013 WA Senate Election result. As a consequence, another election of six senators for WA was to be conducted on 5 April 2014.

12. On 3 April 2014, the AEC announced that, on 31 March 2014 during mobile polling at a residential aged care facility, it was identified that there was a problem with the construction of the ballot box. The mobile polling team applied a temporary solution but the container used was later found to not be fully secure in accordance with the requirements of the Commonwealth Electoral Act. The AEC had decided, after obtaining legal advice, that the affected voters were considered to have not voted, and to remedy the situation and protect the franchise of those voters, made arrangements to assist the affected voters to again be given the opportunity to vote.

13. The outcome from the 5 April 2014 Election was announced by the AEC on 29 April 2014.

Audit objective and scope

14. On 5 December 2013 the Special Minister of State, Senator the Hon Michael Ronaldson, asked the Committee to inquire into and report on all aspects of the conduct of the 2013 Federal Election and matters related thereto. In the course of its current inquiry, the ANAO provided evidence to JSCEM in February 2014 concerning the findings and recommendations of ANAO Audit Report No. 28 2009–10. Further, following the hearing, the Committee wrote to the Auditor‑General on 17 February 2014 requesting further performance audit activity relating to the AEC’s implementation of the earlier ANAO recommendations. The Committee requested that ANAO give priority to the AEC’s response and performance in implementing ANAO’s recommendation relating to the physical security of completed ballot papers, and sought a report on this subject by mid May 2014 if possible.

15. In view of the importance of the AEC’s functions and responsibilities and the interest shown by the Committee in the AEC’s implementation of the ANAO’s earlier recommendations, and to address the matters raised by JSCEM in a timely manner, the Auditor‑General decided to conduct three related performance audits. Two audits were commenced immediately under sub‑section 15(1 of the Auditor‑General Act 1997 (Auditor‑General Act). Specifically:

  • the objective of the first audit, which is the subject of this report, was to assess the adequacy and effectiveness of the AEC’s implementation of the recommendation made in ANAO Audit Report No. 28 2009–10 relating to physical security over the transport and storage of completed ballot papers. The follow‑up of implementation of that recommendation was prioritised as it was an area of particular interest to the Committee given the issues raised in the Keelty report concerning the 1370 missing WA Senate ballot papers from the 7 September 2013 Election that led, ultimately, to a further WA Senate Election on 5 April 2014; and
  • the second audit’s objective is to assess the adequacy and effectiveness of the AEC’s implementation of the recommendations made in ANAO Audit Report No. 28 2009–10 relating to:

- a more strategic approach to election workforce planning, with a particular focus on the selection, recruitment, training and performance evaluation of polling staff;

- the suitability and accessibility of polling booths and fresh scrutiny premises; and

- any matters relating to the transport and storage of completed ballot papers that was not fully addressed in the report of the first audit.

16. The report of the second audit, which will also draw from the first audit, is expected to be tabled in the Spring 2014 session of the Parliament.

17. A third audit of the AEC’s implementation of recommendations made in ANAO Audit Report No. 28 2009–10 will be included in the ANAO’s 2014‑15 forward work program. The focus of the third audit will be on the remaining recommendations from that report. Those relate, in particular, to ANAO suggestions for the AEC to improve the accuracy and completeness of the electoral roll.

Audit objective

18. As mentioned above, the objective of the audit was to assess the adequacy and effectiveness of the AEC’s implementation of the recommendation made in ANAO Audit Report No. 28 2009–10 relating to the transport and storage of completed ballot papers.

Audit criteria

19. To form a conclusion against this audit objective, the ANAO adopted the following high‑level criteria:

  • adequacy: the actions recorded by the AEC as having been taken in relation to the ANAO recommendation was consistent with the terms of the recommendation and could reasonably be expected to address the findings that led to the recommendation being made; and
  • effectiveness: the actions taken by the AEC have effectively addressed the matters raised by ANAO that led to the recommendation being made.

Overall conclusion

20. The integrity of the processes for conducting Federal Elections is central to the effectiveness of the Australian democracy. The AEC has publicly acknowledged that the loss of 1370 WA Senate ballot papers between the fresh scrutiny and recount for the 7 September 2013 Election disenfranchised the affected voters as well as damaged the organisation’s reputation. Ultimately, the loss of those ballot papers led to the September 2013 Election of six WA Senators being declared void and a new election being held on 5 April 2014, with a different political outcome compared to both the fresh scrutiny count and the recount from the September 2013 Election—and at an estimated additional cost to the Australian Government of some $23.2 million.5

21. Each Federal Election is a complex logistical event, with a wide range of preparation tasks required to be completed before polling day. This includes keeping the electoral roll up to date, the recruitment and training of a large temporary workforce as well as the securing of premises for polling and the subsequent counting of completed ballot papers. It has been noted6 that, despite modern technology, the AEC’s election operations are labour intensive, and that the system relies heavily upon people and their commitment to the task.

22. The secure transport and storage of completed ballot papers is one important element in the successful delivery of a Federal Election. Issues concerning the physical security of transport and storage arrangements for completed ballot papers were raised with the AEC before the 2007 Federal General Election in a security risk assessment. In addition, one of the nine recommendations in ANAO’s April 2010 audit report included that the AEC identify and assess options to improve physical security over the transport and storage of completed ballot papers, with JSCEM requesting that ANAO’s follow‑up audit activity give priority to that recommendation. A further sign alerting the AEC of the need to improve the transport and storage arrangements for ballot papers was provided during the 2010 General Election. Specifically, House of Representatives ballot papers in one NSW Division went missing after they had been counted on polling night (but the number of missing ballot papers was not large enough to affect the result) and there were two instances related to the transport of election materials by contractors, one of which involved a box of WA Senate ballot papers that had ‘dropped off’ an open utility in transit from the Divisional Office to storage.

23. It took the AEC some time7 to progress implementation of the ANAO’s recommendation that it identify and assess options that would provide greater physical security over the transport and storage of completed ballot papers. In addition, the AEC adopted a narrow interpretation of the recommendation8, which resulted in inadequate action being taken. Specifically, rather than identifying and assessing options to improve the physical security over the transport and storage of completed ballot papers (as had been recommended by ANAO), the AEC focused on making more overt in procedural and training documentation its expectation that polling place officials keep ballot papers secure at all times by implementing existing approaches to ballot paper security. Such an approach alone does not provide sufficient support to the AEC’s large temporary workforce, which plays a crucial role in ballot paper security on polling‑day and in the transport of ballot papers to fresh scrutiny centres. In this context, at a national level, the AEC has not sought to make use of the data available in returns completed by the Officer in Charge (OIC) of each polling place to assess whether the procedures and training in relation to ballot paper security were being effectively applied.

24. Further, the actions recorded by the AEC were focused on polling place officials and did not include other key parts of the life cycle of completed ballot papers. In particular, the actions recorded by the AEC did not address:

  • the transport of completed ballot papers by contractors, on polling night and subsequently. In some States and Divisions, contractors have an important role in transporting completed ballot papers but ANAO’s further work in this area identified a range of shortcomings with the approach taken by the AEC to contracting for the transport of completed ballot papers. In particular, inadequate security provisions were a feature in most of the contracts examined; or
  • security arrangements at premises used to store ballot papers. Variable practices were observed for the Divisions and polling places examined by the ANAO. Of note was that the extent and nature of security measures employed at offsite scrutiny premises differed, and the lockable rooms available at some of these premises were not large enough to hold all completed ballot papers.

25. The insufficient attention paid to the above matters reflects adversely on the AEC’s governance processes and suggests the need for a stronger organisational emphasis on continuous improvement. The Keelty report commissioned by the AEC in relation to the 1370 missing WA Senate ballot papers from the September 2013 Election made a number of findings, and included various recommendations relating to ballot paper security. In turn, the AEC’s February 2014 submission to JSCEM outlined the actions that are to be taken to address the matters raised by the Keelty report. A number of these actions would have been relevant and appropriate as a management response to the earlier ANAO recommendation that the AEC identify and assess options to improve physical security over the storage and transport of completed ballot papers.9 In addition, having regard to the findings of this follow‑up audit, ANAO has made a further three recommendations relating to the AEC:

  • becoming more aware, at a national level, of the extent to which important procedures are being adhered to, training is being applied and if there are any significant differences in the number of votes counted at the polling place on election‑night and the subsequent Divisional Office fresh scrutinies;
  • promoting a consistent, high standard approach to contracting for the transport of ballot papers and other election material. This includes by providing national guidance to State and Divisional Offices on the circumstances where the use of contractors is to be preferred as well as those where AEC employees are considered better placed to perform this work. In addition, there would be benefits from the AEC developing a stronger contracting framework by, among other matters, including appropriate security requirements for ballot papers and other election material in all contracts; and
  • improving the security over the storage of completed ballot papers, particularly at offsite scrutiny centres and private residences.

26. More broadly, ANAO performance audits seek to provide a stimulus for improved public sector performance and accountability by making specific recommendations to assist agencies improve upon existing approaches and address risks to the delivery of outcomes. In this context, concerns have been raised over time by the AEC’s audit committee about the time that the organisation takes to action audit recommendations that have been agreed.

27. The AEC’s public apologies and the steps it has outlined that will be taken in response to the Keelty report indicates that the organisation recognises there are lessons to be learned from the experience with the 2013 WA Senate Election. Against this background, and having regard to the earlier signs that should have alerted the AEC to the need to improve the transport and storage arrangements for completed ballot papers, a key message for the AEC from this follow‑up performance audit is that there needed to be stronger ownership of the implementation of agreed ANAO recommendations within the AEC. In this context, it is important that the AEC’s governance arrangements emphasise continuous improvement and provide assurance that the action taken in response to agreed recommendations effectively addresses the matters that lead to recommendations being made, so as to protect the integrity of Australia’s electoral system and rebuild confidence in the AEC. In relation to the secure transport and storage of completed ballot papers, implementation of the three ANAO recommendations made in this report will require a greater focus by the AEC on providing appropriate support to Divisional Offices and the large temporary election workforce, who play key roles in transporting and storing ballot papers as well as contracting for ballot paper transport and storage.

Key findings by chapter

Adequacy of the implementation action recorded by the AEC (Chapter 2)

28. ANAO has previously conducted one follow‑up audit of the AEC’s implementation of ANAO recommendations. Specifically, ANAO Audit Report No. 39 2003–04 concluded that the AEC had been ‘slow’ to progress the implementation of the ANAO recommendations made in Audit Report No. 42 2001–02 relating to the integrity of the electoral roll.

29. Similarly, since March 2011 the AEC’s audit committee has been raising concerns about the time that the organisation takes to action internal audit recommendations that have been agreed. This issue was raised in audit committee meetings held in 2012 and 2013. The first audit committee meeting for 2014 also included this matter on its agenda. For this meeting, the audit committee was informed that there were 32 recommendations that remained incomplete and that, of the 15 that were not considered to be ‘in progress’:

  • three were more than two years old, each of which had been rated as high risk and involved an internal audit of mail handling and delivery arrangements completed in April 2007; and
  • four were greater than 18 months old, each of which had been rated as high risk and involved a June 2012 audit of contract management.

30. In relation to the recommendations made in ANAO Audit Report No. 28 2009–10, it took some time for the AEC to report to its audit committee on its progress with implementing the ANAO recommendations. In particular:

  • no status report was provided in the four months between the audit report tabling and polling day for the 2010 Federal Election (there was one audit committee meeting held in this period, some two months after the audit report was tabled and two months before the 2010 Election, with a further scheduled meeting one month prior to polling day not held);
  • an audit committee meeting held in November 2010 (three months after the 2010 Election) had included a status report on the AEC’s implementation of internal audit recommendations, but no status report was provided in relation to the ANAO recommendations; and
  • the first status report was provided in March 2011, eleven months after the audit report was tabled, and one month after the AEC had advised JSCEM on the status of its implementation of the ANAO recommendations.

31. The AEC’s audit committee was advised at its March 2012 meeting, which was nearly two years after the ANAO report was tabled, that action to implement all ANAO recommendations had been completed.

Adequacy of the action recorded as being taken by the AEC

32. The ANAO recommendation was that the AEC identify and assess options that would provide greater physical security over the storage and transport of ballot papers. The action taken by the AEC was to make more overt its expectation that AEC polling place employees secure ballot papers during the transport and storage of ballot papers between the polling place on election night and the return of polling place materials to the Divisional Office. This was done in the form of an election bulletin, documented procedures and training materials.

33. The AEC’s approach reinforced the implementation of existing practices for the packaging, transport and storage of completed ballot papers by polling place staff. It did not involve the identification and assessment of options that would improve on past practices and provide greater physical security of ballot papers during transportation and storage, as had been recommended by ANAO.

34. By way of comparison, the AEC’s February 2014 submission to JSCEM outlined various actions that are to be taken to address findings in the Keelty report relating to ballot paper security. A number of these actions would have been relevant and appropriate as a management response to the earlier ANAO recommendation.

Polling place security over completed ballot papers (Chapter 3)

35. The AEC’s election procedure manuals and handbooks, as well as training materials for polling place employees, emphasise the security of ballot papers at polling places. Various controls are intended to be implemented to promote ballot paper security. However, similar to the earlier audit of the 2007 Election, ANAO found that adherence to ballot paper controls at the 2013 Election for the sampled polling places was mixed. In particular:

  • the cardboard boxes into which voters place completed ballot papers are to be sealed, with the application and removal of these seals to be recorded and witnessed but, for 17 per cent of the polling places examined by ANAO, the breaking of the seals was not signed by the OIC of the polling place or witnessed;
  • eight per cent of ballot paper reconciliations were not completed (two in relation to the House of Representatives, and three in relation to the Senate) and 67 per cent of the completed reconciliations did not balance. In most instances, the difference between the number of ballot papers accounted for and those that should have been accounted for was less than 10, but there were also some significant variances; and
  • differences (of more than five ballot papers) in the number of votes counted at the polling place compared with the fresh scrutiny (and/or, for WA, the Senate recount) reduced confidence in polling place security over completed ballot papers for 20 per cent of the counts examined by ANAO (comprising House of Representatives counts from five polling places, and Senate counts from seven polling places). The differences included both instances where more ballot papers were included in the fresh scrutiny count than had been recorded as having been completed by voters at the polling place, and instances where fewer votes were counted in the fresh scrutiny than had been included in the polling place count.

36. The incidence and extent of such matters is not currently evident to the AEC at a national level. This is because the AEC does not seek to analyse OIC returns nationally so as to obtain insights as to the extent to which procedures are being complied with, and training is being applied.

Transport of completed ballot papers by polling place officials (Chapter 4)

37. The procedure manuals, handbooks and training materials issued by the AEC for polling place officials include statements emphasising the importance of completed ballot papers being transported by those officials in a secure manner. Making such expectations more overt in this documentation was the main action taken by the AEC in response to ANAO’s earlier recommendation.

38. However, the way that completed ballot papers were to be kept secure in the different circumstances faced by Divisions and polling place officials was not addressed at a national level by the AEC through this documentation. For example, concerns were raised in a pre‑election risk assessment about security arrangements over the transport of completed ballot papers in private vehicles, with the specific recommendations made in the risk assessment not reflected in the documentation provided to Divisional Offices and polling place officials. The handbooks and training materials provided by National Office to Divisional Offices and polling staff also do not provide guidance on the management of ballot paper security risks in situations where it is necessary for relay transport arrangements to be employed by polling officials to move completed ballot papers.

39. This situation may now change given that the implementation of a number of the recommendations from the Keelty report will require the AEC to improve the physical security over the transportation of completed ballot papers by polling place officials in private vehicles. In particular, the Keelty report recognised that some individuals involved in the movement of ballot papers will not be ‘logistics professionals’, and recommended that the AEC institute controls that include guidelines regarding transportation of ballot papers in private vehicles. The Keelty report also recommended that the AEC:

  • specifies and defines the role of employees (permanent and temporary) at every stage of ballot handling;
  • once roles are specified, allocate them to individuals with instructions provided in writing; and
  • review packaging policies, particularly in relation to the cardboard standard for boxes used in the transport and storage of ballot papers.

Contracting for the transport of ballot papers (Chapter 5)

40. The actions taken by the AEC to implement ANAO’s April 2010 recommendation that it identify and assess options to improve the physical security over the storage and transport of completed ballot papers did not address the use of contractors to move election material. This remained the case after the August 2010 Federal Election, notwithstanding that two incidents arose during that election in relation to insufficient security over the transport of polling material by contractors, as mentioned in paragraph 6.

41. Against this background, there are significant variations in practice across the AEC in relation to the use of contractors during the 2013 Election to transport ballot papers and other election material. In this context, the AEC has not:

  • examined, at a national level, the experiences of different states and divisions so as to identify whether there are particular ballot paper transportation approaches that should be preferred, and in what circumstances10; and
  • promoted a consistent, high standard of contracting for the transportation of election materials. For example, although a contractor was used in WA to transport completed ballot papers from the September 2013 Election, the contract did not explicitly include the transportation of completed ballot papers within its terms. Also, seven of the eight AEC transport contracts examined by ANAO did not include appropriate provisions promoting secure handling and movement of election material.

42. The different approaches adopted by the states as to the extent to which they use contractors to move completed ballot papers has implications for the AEC in responding to the findings and recommendations of the Keelty report. In particular, the Keelty report made a number of recommendations concerning the transport of completed ballot papers by contractors, but achieving a consistently high standard of ballot paper security will require different approaches to be taken when the transport of completed ballot papers is undertaken by AEC employees rather than by contractors.

Storage of completed ballot papers on polling night (Chapter 6)

Storage at offsite scrutiny premises

43. For the majority of the polling places included in ANAO’s sample, completed ballot papers were stored on polling night at premises leased by the AEC, or an AEC Divisional Office.

44. Prior to the 2007 Election, in response to a security risk assessment, the AEC issued national guidance that offsite scrutiny premises used to store or hold completed ballot papers should have a minimum of two levels of protective security/access control. This approach was not reflected in the AEC’s 2013 Election handbooks and policies.11

45. A further security assessment was commissioned by the AEC prior to the 2013 Election. In respect to the overnight storage of ballot papers, it was recommended that the AEC ensure that venues meet the security zone and storage requirements outlined in the Australian Government Protective Security Policy Framework, and that access control to the area, security of keys, and procedures for the transfer of custody of live ballot papers to AEC staff on collection also be considered.12 However, this recommendation was not reflected in the AEC’s 2013 Election handbooks and policies. Rather Divisional Returning Officers (DROs) were advised that they ‘must ensure that all used and unused ballot papers are placed under security either by storage in security rooms/cabinets or other security arrangements as approved by the State Manager’ and that the minimum standard for overnight storage was a secure locked room.

46. Ballot paper security arrangements at offsite scrutiny centres used by some of the Divisions examined by ANAO varied. For example, the Haymarket Larger Work Unit in NSW (which comprises four Divisions) outlined that a series of security measures were in place at its offsite scrutiny centre. The arrangements adopted were consistent with the advice promulgated following the 2007 security risk assessment, as well as in accord with more general guidance included in the 2013 Election Procedures Manual. In comparison:

  • three of the sampled WA Divisions also used offsite scrutiny centres. In each instance, notwithstanding that a secure locked room was the minimum standard for overnight storage, the locked rooms available at the three leased premises were not large enough to hold all completed ballot papers; and
  • for the fourth sampled WA Division, completed ballot papers were stored overnight in an unoccupied polling place, which was also used as that Division’s offsite scrutiny premises. The AEC’s pre‑election inspection of this polling place had not identified that there was sufficient security measures in place for the overnight storage of ballot papers.
Storage at private residences

47. It was quite common in the polling places sampled by ANAO for completed ballot papers to be stored overnight at the residences of polling place officials, prior to being transported on the Sunday to the relevant fresh scrutiny centre. This situation reflects the distances involved in transporting completed ballot papers from more remote polling places (particularly in rural electorates) to the location to be used for the fresh scrutiny.

48. Physical security arrangements where completed ballot papers were to be stored at private residences were raised in the security risk assessment commissioned by the AEC prior to the 2007 Election. However, no improved physical security arrangements to better support Divisions and polling officials in these circumstances were developed or promulgated by the AEC in light of that risk assessment or ANAO’s earlier recommendation. Accordingly, such situations remain a point of greater risk in the life cycle of completed ballot papers.

Summary of agency response

49. The AEC’s summary response to the proposed audit report is provided below, with the full response at Appendix 1.

The AEC has publicly acknowledged, and apologised for, the events surrounding the 2013 WA Senate election that disenfranchised affected voters, damaged the organisation’s reputation, and revealed that certain processes relating to the transport and storage of ballot papers were not as robust as had been thought. The agency has already embarked on a comprehensive program to address the issues identified, and is committed to continuing the implementation of the Keelty report (Inquiry into the 2013 WA Senate election): a process that has already fundamentally changed the way that the AEC handles the transport and storage of ballot papers.

The AEC also agrees with the specific recommendations in the current audit report, and will now operationalise and implement them. The continued implementation of the Keelty report, and the addition of the ANAO recommendations will assist the AEC to enhance processes and prevent a repeat of the issues which occurred in 2013.

The full AEC response to this audit acknowledges the identified deficiencies, and provides contextual information regarding the exigencies of the AEC’s unique operating environment that may not be obvious to external readers, and that guided this agency’s response to that earlier report.

Recommendations

Set out below are the ANAO’s recommendations and the AEC’s abbreviated responses. More detailed responses from the AEC are shown in the body of the report immediately after each recommendation.

Recommendation No. 1

Paragraph 3.46

To obtain a greater appreciation, at a national level, of the extent to which polling place officials are adhering to important procedures and applying their training, including in relation to the security of completed ballot papers, ANAO recommends that the AEC:

(a) analyses the information included in returns completed by the Officer in Charge of each polling place; and

(b) sets, measures and reports against performance standards for differences in the number of ballot papers included in the first count conducted at the polling place, the fresh scrutiny count and any recount.

AEC response: Agreed.

Recommendation No. 2

Paragraph 5.45

To promote a consistent, high standard approach to contracting for the transport of ballot papers and other election material, ANAO recommends that the AEC:

(a) investigates, at a national level, the extent to which transport contractors are used in each State and Territory, and the relative merits of the different approaches, so as to provide guidance to State and Divisional Offices on the circumstances in which the use of contractors is to be preferred as well as those where AEC employees are considered better placed to perform this work; and

(b) develops a stronger contracting framework that promotes open and effective competition in the procurement approach, written contracts being in place prior to contractors providing services and the terms of each written contract including the full scope of services to be provided as well as appropriate security requirements for ballot papers and other election material.

AEC response: Agreed.

Recommendation No. 3

Paragraph 6.46

To improve the security over the storage of completed ballot papers, ANAO recommends that the AEC:

(a) includes in election policy documents and manuals minimum security arrangements that are to be implemented for the storage of completed ballot papers at offsite scrutiny centres, polling places and private residences respectively;

(b) provides Divisional Offices and polling place officials with sufficient resources and other support to implement the prescribed minimum security arrangements for overnight storage of completed ballot papers; and

(c) takes appropriate steps to be assured, at a national level, that the prescribed minimum security arrangements for overnight storage of completed ballot papers are adhered to.

AEC response: Agreed parts (a) and (c), Agreed in Principle part (b).

Footnotes

[1] Who must be an active or retired judge of the Federal Court of Australia.

[2] ANAO Audit Report No. 28 2009–10, The Australian Electoral Commission’s Preparation for and Conduct of the 2007 Federal General Election, 21 April 2010.

[3] Since 1983, it has been the practice of JSCEM and its predecessors to examine the conduct of each Federal Election and related matters.

[4] Specifically, 115 House of Representatives ballot papers for the NSW Division of Macquarie were reported to have ‘gone missing’ after they had been counted on polling night. The AEC advised JSCEM that, because the results could not be verified through the fresh scrutiny process, the polling night results were removed from the official results and that, as the final margin in the seat on a two party preferred basis was 2197, the missing ballot papers had no impact on the result.

[5] The AEC advised ANAO that the estimated additional cost comprised a budget of $19.898 million for election delivery and an estimated $3.3 million for public election funding payments to candidates and Senate groups.

[6]Inquiry into the 2013 WA Senate Election, Report commissioned by the AEC and produced by MJ Keelty AO, December 2013, p. 3 (‘the Keelty report’).

[7] See paragraphs 28 and 31.

[8] By way of comparison, in February 2014 the AEC informed JSCEM that ‘the AEC is treating the Keelty recommendations as a minimum standard; where appropriate, the AEC is either adopting, or considering adopting, measures which go beyond Mr Keelty’s recommendations’.

[9] This included the AEC’s advice to JSCEM that it was: having discussions with transport and logistics providers on introducing improvement controls over the movement of ballot papers and election materials; enhancing the documentation and tracking of movements of ballot papers; conducting a quality assurance check of all contracts relating to the delivery of the Griffith by‑election, including security clauses; developing and publishing underpinning ‘ballot paper principles’; and considering appropriate steps to address the ‘cultural’ issues highlighted in the Keelty report.

[10] For example, in Victoria it is considered more efficient and effective to have completed ballot papers moved to long‑term storage by AEC employees in vehicles hired by the AEC, whereas contractors play a significant role in this work in both New South Wales and WA.

[11] In February 2014, the AEC informed JSCEM that it was ‘developing interim guidance on minimum standards for non‑AEC premises that handle or store ballot papers’.

[12] Similarly, the Keelty report recommended that the AEC:

  • institutes a concept of ‘ballot secure zones’ at all premises where completed ballot papers are handled or stored (including fresh scrutiny centres and non‑AEC premises); and
  • ensures all ballot secure zones are cleared before the arrival of completed ballot papers, and that they remain secured and ‘sterile’ at all times when ballots are present.

 

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