Saturday, 11 September 2010

Australia's Electoral Secret - No longer open and transparent

Elections in Australia are no longer open and transparent with the Australian Electoral Commission refusing to subject information pertaining to the conduct of the electronic counting of the ballot to proper scrutiny.

Scrutineers have been denied access to copies of the Senate count reconciliation and below the line preference data files

Mr Paul Pirani, Chief Legal Officer for the Australian Electoral Commission in response to a request for access to this information claimed that copies of the data files could only be obtained through the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act and the payment of a 30 dollar fee. It was unclear on what or whose authority or direction Mr Pirani was withholding access to this vital information.

Without access to copies of the preference vote data-files and reconciliation reports it is impossible for scrutineers to conduct a proper and comprehensive scrutiny of the ballot. A formal request for copies of the data has been made in writing, but this is of not much value to the scrutiny of the ballot after the count or the horse has bolted.

Access to copies of the preference data files as the count progresses was made available during the 2008 Victorian Municipal Elections and copies also made available for the 2007 Federal election, although three months after the declaration of the poll.

There is no suggestion that the conduct of the election has been fraudulent. We have not seen a repeat of the disastrous mistakes made in the counting of the 2006 Victorian State Election where data entry errors and a lack of due diligence by the Victorian Electoral Commission had necessitated a full review of counting the upper house votes in Northern and Western Metropolitan Regions.

The processes put in place by the Australian Electoral Commission, apart from the Commission’s inability or unwillingness to provide access to the data requested has been exemplary. It's double data-entry validation system is significantly better system then the one used by the Victorian Electoral Commission in 2006.

The problem never the less remains in that the Commission has denied access to vital information pertinent to the proper and open transparency of the conduct of the election.

Elections today are counted in cyberspace, and the outcome of the election can only be determined if the quality and integrity of the data is maintained. by refusing to make this data available during the counting process the Electoral Commission has compromised the openness and transparency of the count. The independent scrutiny and validation of the election results can be ascertained.

The centralised electronic data collection process and the reconciliation of this data is the weakest link.

The suggestion by Mr Pirani that Scrutineers can only gain access to this data though an application under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act and the payment of $30 is an abuse of process.

It prevents Scrutineers from independently verifying or scrutinising the quality of the data collected. There is no legal grounds that this information should be withheld, in fact if we are to maintain an open and transparent electoral process access to this data must be readily available.

Mr Pirani in claiming that to provide access to a copy of the data files would necessitate delays in the count is false. A well designed and secure data collection process should allow access to this information at any time.

The centralised data collection accesess this data as part of the normal processes. To make a copy of the data would take no more than 5 mins and would not prevent or delay the counting of the ballot.  The Victiorian Electoral Commission provided copies of the information during the 2008 municipal elections.

So the question is why is the Australian Electoral Commission refusing to provide access to the crucial and important information?

This issue will now be a subject of a further parliamentary inquiry.

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