The Australian Electoral Commission’s (AEC) loss of 1,375 ballot papers for the West Australian Senate count was an unfortunate failure from an agency that already faced growing public pressure to do away with paper and pencil voting. Even before the ballots disappeared, newly minted MP Clive Palmer was loudly calling for the introduction of US-style electronic voting machines. Meanwhile, an experiment with internet voting for people with disabilities in New South Wales in 2011 caused many to question why we all can’t vote from home. But before we pulp the paper ballots, it’s worth considering what — if anything — is actually wrong with the system as it stands, as well as what the pros and cons of the alternatives may be. Australia’s current procedures for recording and counting votes have essentially remained unchanged since federation. Voters are given a piece of paper and a pencil with which to record their voting preference, and the completed ballot papers are then placed in a sealed box.
At the close of the polls, those boxes are opened and an initial count is conducted by hand on-site at each polling booth. The AEC employs thousands of returning officers to staff each booth and manage this initial count; these officers then phone the results into AEC headquarters so they can be plugged into the commission’s central database. That’s how we get the “provisional results” that are broadcast on election night.
After election day, the ballot papers from individual booths are transported to a central location in each state so that a second, more formal, count can be carried out. This involves entering the preferences for each individual ballot into a computer, so a definitive distribution of preferences can be calculated electronically.
This counting process means that ballots are processed twice, by at least two different sets of people and in two different locations. This ensures there is a high degree of scrutiny and cross-checking. But it also creates a small risk that ballots will be lost, damaged or otherwise tampered with during the counting process.