Go to top of page

The Electoral Commissioner reflects on the year

Photo of Tom Rogers, Electoral Commissioner
As this report is being prepared, there are extraordinary measures in place in Australia, and globally, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The measures required to respond to the pandemic have had an impact on all Australians, and the AEC is proud of its part in supporting the broader public sector during this difficult time. Additionally, the AEC has adapted its service delivery model to deliver trusted and high-quality electoral services during this difficult period.

The pandemic followed an already sombre start to the 2020 calendar year in Australia, with bushfires having a catastrophic impact on many parts of our country. With many Australians losing their homes, the bushfires also required the AEC to change the way we do business to enable those affected by the fires to enrol, or update their enrolment details, simply and easily. The severe bushfires and the pandemic also affected our own staff, and we enacted measures to support the more than 700 people we have in 86 locations across the country to ensure their safety and wellbeing.

Complexity

I have previously stated that federal elections are Australia’s largest and most complex, non-crisis related, peacetime events. It is one of the very few national events where all eligible Australians interact with us during an incredibly intense, politically charged, short period. Electoral complexity is subject to—and masked by—the electoral administrator’s conundrum: the better and more efficient the election, the simpler the event appears to voters, candidates and political parties (most of whom only interact with the voting process episodically, and even then for just a few brief minutes). However, there are a large number of logistically complicated and legislatively complex steps required to deliver elections successfully; including satisfying rapidly evolving community expectations and a range of environmental factors that are, frankly, nearly impossible to predict.

Our internal and external environments remain complex and, in some cases, extremely volatile. In addition to increased cost and complexity surrounding the election delivery logistical framework, Australia is subject to the same global meta-trends of cyber security, misinformation, disinformation and data integrity that are complicating electoral integrity in other democracies. As a result, complexity will unequivocally continue to be a theme for federal elections in Australia.

The AEC is well placed to deal with these issues, and has worked extensively with our partner agencies (including Australian security and intelligence agencies), and like-minded international electoral bodies, to ensure we are well-placed to secure Australia’s electoral system, and deliver safe and trusted elections to Australian voters.

Electoral preparedness

The AEC has an established election readiness roadmap which encompasses capturing lessons from electoral events, implementing change in response to those lessons, and then mobilising our staff, processes and systems to ensure we are ready to deliver the next electoral event.

During this financial year our agency also implemented new legislation for the Funding and Disclosure scheme and started to look more deeply at the future direction of the AEC beyond the next electoral cycle. This includes considering what elections will look like in the future, including voter expectations. ‘Voter 2030’ imagines how elections might be delivered in the future and the steps the AEC needs to take to ensure we are still delivering a valued and trusted service at that point. Our entire Senior Executive Leadership group met during this financial year to consider Voter 2030—and the current and potential future environmental impact on electoral systems and processes more broadly—to help inform current and future agency decisions.

Of course, it’s not possible to predict exactly how elections will be administered in 2030—there are simply too many unknown factors. However, one certainty is that citizen expectations continue to evolve and Australian voters expect a safe environment, the ability to access the vote very easily, tiny queues, an incredibly swift result, and a trusted process. To meet these expectations, our analysis shows there is a clear need for more automation, particularly regarding enrolment processes and to facilitate timely election results. Clearly, there is also an undeniable need to do more to ensure the security of our systems.

However, some realities which we will need to factor into our modernisation journey include:

  • our funding
  • the availability and cost of technology
  • legislation
  • our external environment
  • the ever-increasing threat of disinformation and cyber security

To achieve our goals within this reality, we need to continue evolving as an agency to get the best out of our available funding. In this regard, we continue to work with relevant stakeholders on the replacement of our two main, very aged, electoral IT systems. We are also working closely with the Department of Finance and others to consider our funding model and to ensure we are appropriately funded to guard Australia’s democratic processes and deliver trusted outcomes.

“Our internal and external environments remain complex and extremely volatile. As a result, complexity will unequivocally continue to be a theme for federal elections in Australia.”

Electoral security

Electoral security remains an area of comprehensive focus for the AEC. We have continued to monitor, assess and refine our systems and processes to enhance our physical, cyber and information security. As a result, we are maintaining compliance with the Australian Signals Directorate’s ‘Essential Eight’ strategies to mitigate cyber security incidents.

In major democracies around the world, online disinformation has been identified as a major threat to democratic processes. The AEC has taken proactive steps to increase awareness of how to counter disinformation. In that regard, the Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce has helped the AEC reduce the risk of disinformation during federal elections and by-elections, and we have worked with our state-based counterparts to put the Taskforce in place for state and territory electoral events. While each Australian jurisdiction runs its own electoral systems, failure of any individual system—for any election—would rightly be seen as a failure that impacts on all levels of government and all electoral management bodies.

This added assurance will continue to be in place at federal elections and by-elections, and will support our state counterparts, when requested, to further reduce risks to democracy.

In recognition of the importance of this critical democratic marker, the AEC has also appointed an electoral interference coordinator to manage the AEC’s efforts to counter and respond to interference in Australia’s federal election systems and processes.

By-election during pandemic

When the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic broke out in Australia, we established a ‘tiger team’ to identify risks in response to the pandemic and the associated restrictions and requirements, as well as the operational strategies available to mitigate these. The AEC was required to build on this work and to deliver a by-election in the division of Eden-Monaro, with the polling day on 4 July 2020. Successful delivery of this highly complex event required substantial, pandemic-related stakeholder engagement with a large range of federal, state and local government authorities. We adapted our delivery model, followed guidance from relevant health and law enforcement agencies, and planned the event to ensure voters were able to participate safely, and permanent and temporary staff were also protected.

Indigenous electoral participation

Quite rightly, the broad issue of Indigenous engagement with Australia’s electoral system remains a focus for the AEC, and many external stakeholders. Indigenous Australians are, it is estimated, less likely to be on the roll, and less likely to vote than other members of the community. In some areas, particularly the Northern Territory and parts of Western Australia, estimated Indigenous enrolment rates are lower than the national average.

The reasons behind the under-representation of Indigenous Australians on the roll are highly complex. In many ways, the situation is a further reflection of broader issues of disadvantage in remote communities. There are no simple solutions, and often touted ‘enrolment drives’ deal with only one issue and rarely produce sustained results. This extremely challenging area requires a multi-faceted approach to increase Indigenous engagement with Australia’s electoral system. This includes sustained engagement with local partners to leverage existing relationships, and extending the AEC’s digital reach and footprint into remote communities. I am pleased to report that estimated enrolment rates are increasing slowly.

However, enrolling people in remote communities is a challenge for electoral management bodies around the world, not just in Australia. We are conscious of the challenge and are partnering with our stakeholders to redress this key area.

The future

The past financial year has been challenging and difficult. The AEC, like all Australians, has grappled with issues such as bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite that difficult environment, we are conscious of the need to be election ready and to ensure we can continue to deliver trusted electoral services to all Australians. As we move deeper into the current electoral cycle, the AEC’s focus will necessarily turn to the more detailed planning required for the next federal electoral event, whenever that may be. The outcome of our funding review will be a particularly critical component of this planning. However, we will continue to balance those immediate preparatory steps with a longer-term view on enhancing and securing Australia’s electoral system into the future.