AEC still grappling with new Senate system

The new preference system is presenting challenges. Photo: Paul HarrisThe Australian Electoral Commission has still not “finalised” its plan for counting more than 12 million Senate ballots, with a little more than three weeks to polling day.

The commission looks likely to turn to scanning machines for the first time to help it cope with a counting task massively expanded by the government’s changes to upper house voting.

But the AEC insists it will have all the votes and preferences finalised by the mandated August 8 deadline.

The commission is confronted with the task of entering up to 12 million ballots onto its system, up from about 500,000 under the old voting rules, and one electoral expert says it is unsurprising the AEC is battling to cope after the changes were rushed through by the government.

The commission says the Senate count is “more complex”, with voters now able to express their preferences either above or below the line on the ballot paper and that scanning technology, using machines to count or check the vote, could be used for the first time.

The changes were introduced in March in an effort to end preference-swap deals getting micro-parties elected with tiny shares of the vote.

Rather than the old system of placing a “1” above the line on Senate ballot papers or numbering every box below the line, voters will number “1” to “6” above the line in order of their preferences on July 2.

An AEC spokesman told Fairfax that the count was “more complex” in the wake of the reforms.

“While we are well advanced in preparing for the Senate count overall, we are still finalising some matters,” he said.

“As a result of the Senate voting changes, the practical arrangements the Senate counting process will be different at the 2016 federal election.

“To help manage the 2016 Senate count, the AEC is investigating options to semi-automate the count process and, where appropriate, considering the use of scanning technology.

“Further details will be made available before polling day.”

Election analyst and political scientist William Bowe said below-the-line voting had always presented a counting challenge to the AEC but the new system made it all the more daunting.

“Counting above-the-line votes was easy, you just tally the number of 1s in each box and that was 95 per cent of the count done,” he said.

“Those of us that voted below the line, presented them [the AEC] with an enormous data-entry challenge, keying in every single one of those votes.

“The challenge now is they’ve gone from entering 500,000 ballots, if that, to more than 12 million and it occurred to me that it wasn’t going to be easy.”

Mr Bowe said he was not surprised that the commission was scrambling to get a system in place in time for the election after the haste with which the voting changes were pushed through by the government.

“The whole process of the legislation was rushed, there was an extremely brief committee inquiry at which they interviewed AEC officials and their line essentially was, ‘Whatever you ask us to do, we’ll make it happen’,” he said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if the AEC were a little too eager to say yes.”

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