PRESENTER: Okay. What would be the cost—just out of interest—what would the cost be?
SMITH: Well, in Ireland they decided to roll out this sort of system and they spent 50 million euros. And then, before they even used them, it was demonstrated to be unsafe. So the government banned the voting machines and ended up selling them, Justin, for nine euros each as scrap metal.
PRESENTER: Oh no!
SMITH: So, a country like Australia, we didn’t attempt to cost it.
SMITH: But you think, a small population, very big country, thousands of booths…
PRESENTER: I’m sorry Mr Smith, we didn’t attempt to cost it?
PRESENTER: Oh okay.
SMITH: No, it would just be prohibitively expensive.
SMITH: I mean, there’s not a country that has, sort of, rolled it out to that level. In the US, very big country, you’ve got a number of states that do it and it’s a bit of a mish-mash. And the other thing we found, Justin, is even in the US, states are starting to move away from the machine voting because while you have human error, as we had in Western Australia, you’ve got machine error over there. They’ve had instances where a machine just stopped counting; it didn’t count 4 000 votes—it was more than the margin of the election.
SMITH: You have these issues. They’re costly to buy, they’re costly to keep running, and that’s why some of the states are moving away from them.
PRESENTER: But Tony, we’ve had the missing voters—if you don’t mind me calling you Tony. In Western Australia, we’ve had those missing votes. We’ve had Indi at the moment, they’re still trying to figure out what happened to Sophie Mirabella’s old seat, with people saying—with the allegation—that people who didn’t even live there have been able to vote…
SMITH: …who were enrolled there.
PRESENTER: I was talking to somebody that—we got their full details after I spoke to them—but they admitted to me on air that they voted about seven times in the last federal election in the one electorate, just walking from polling booth to polling booth and voting, and they’ve never been called for it.
SMITH: Well Justin, you hit on a very important point. Part of our report goes to this. We say, look, the AEC needs to modernise its processes—there’s no question about that—but in a way that strengthens the integrity of our electoral system; not in a way that risks it. Now, on the issue of multiple voting, we know at the last election from the statistics that we’ve been given from the AEC that there are about 18 000 multiple votes, of which about 10 000 were clerical error.
SMITH: But they have referred numbers of cases of people to the police for investigation where people have admitted multiple voting. At the moment…
PRESENTER: Has anyone ever been done for that?
SMITH: Not in recent memory, and this is a problem that needs to be taken more seriously…
PRESENTER: Well that’s right, and I know it’s not for you to answer but that’s ridiculous! I mean, if it has happened, we know it’s happened, and no-one’s ever been done for it. No-one’s going to be scared about it, are they?
SMITH: Well to his credit, the Acting Electoral Commissioner’s referred a number. And I think one person, he said in evidence, is alleged to have voted 16 times. Now, your point, how does this happen. You describe you had someone tell you on air. The point you’re making is a very important point because when you turn up to vote at a polling booth, you’re asked if you voted anywhere else before and your name is crossed off. Now, someone can vote as many times as there are polling booths in a division.
SMITH: Someone can vote in your name, Justin, in other polling booths. So we’ve recommended in this report, move to an electronic, computerised list. So when you vote at your local primary school, not only is your name crossed off on the computer there but simultaneously it goes off in every other booth in the electorate.
PRESENTER: Okay, that’s not bad.
SMITH: And we think the AEC should start to roll this out at the next election. That’s a modernisation they should lead on and it aids integrity in the electoral system.
PRESENTER: That’s not a bad start, is it?
SMITH: It’s a good start but in the wake of Western Australia, the AEC is quite rightly going through a major renovation. A ‘Renovation Rescue’, Justin.
SMITH: And that’s occupied a lot of our time.
PRESENTER: But Tony, I put this list out there before: banking, health insurance, car insurance, holiday plans, diaries and appointments, our whole social life, shopping. We’re all very happy to do that online. Surely we can find a way of doing this here?
SMITH: Well there’s two points. It was interesting… I mean, I assumed so at the start of the hearing, I don’t mind saying that to you. I hadn’t given it a lot of thought. But after listening to all the experts—and I should point out this was a unanimous Committee report; Labor, Liberal, and a Green member, so that’s pretty rare here in Canberra, Justin…
PRESENTER: Yeah. Yes!
SMITH: …two things came to mind. I mean, it’s not safe at the moment, but there’s a likelihood with technological developments that it’ll reach an acceptable safety level. But the additional point that was made was, look—and I think this is an important point when you think about it—is yes, you can absolutely understand people say “I do so many transactions online, why can’t I do voting online?”. The answer is it’s not an everyday transaction, and…
PRESENTER: Thank goodness.
SMITH: …and what it risks—and this is a very important point for your listeners—is the secrecy of the ballot. Not only do you have a right to vote; you’ve got a right to a secret vote. And it was pointed out by the exports that once you start voting in family rooms and workplaces and in public places, it opens up the prospect of coercion and a market for votes, in a way that doesn’t exist in the seclusion of the polling booth. And that’s an important consideration. Because it can’t be done safely, it’s not a consideration of this Parliament or the next. But one day, one Parliament will have to make the judgement whether that convenience is worth compromising other aspects of our electoral process.
PRESENTER: But there isn’t just convenience. I mean, we’re not just looking for a way to dodge the sausages out the front and you guys handing out little things to us, we’re not trying to dodge you. But we want…
SMITH: You can’t avoid us in an election!
PRESENTER: Yeah that’s right, you’ll track us down somewhere.
PRESENTER: But I mean, what we’re trying to avoid here is people being able to manipulate the system. And I mean, we still come down to a pencil and piece of paper system. It just seems that we should be able to move beyond this. I know there’s not going to be a perfect system.
SMITH: Well the evidence was from the computer experts, which was, yes, you might have lost 1 370 paper ballots, but you can lose many many more through hacking. You can lose them and not even know you’ve lost them…
SMITH: …and have them changed. And that is the situation. So there’s one country that does internet voting, and that is Estonia. And you’ve got lots of machine voting. A lot of the European countries have moved away even from that, as have some of the American states. So, you’re right, I mean I can understand the criticism of the current system. That’s why the AEC needs to tighten up its processes. You should have a computerised list, so that voters have confidence that there isn’t multiple voting, or at least if someone attempts it it’s picked up at the first or second instance; not a week or two after the election, where they say someone called Justin Smith voted at 35 locations; that’s possible.
SMITH: And we’ve had elections decided by about that number of votes.
PRESENTER: It’s true. That is exactly right. So are you confident they’ll put this new system in place?
SMITH: It will cost them some money but it’s an investment in our democracy.
PRESENTER: How much, Tony?
SMITH: Well, they’re working it out now. Interestingly, Justin, they—this didn’t get a lot of coverage because there was a lot of bad news around the AEC after Western Australia—but they implemented this in full at every booth at the Griffith by-election and it was a stunning success.
PRESENTER: Yeah, okay.
SMITH: And so we’ve said as a first step, roll it out to every pre-poll place; that’s a good first step, and then roll it out to mobile teams as well, and then start to roll it out where feasible. I mean, obviously it can’t work in every single rural booth but that’s less of a problem because if there’s a booth of 50 people in regional Australia they all seem to know each other.
PRESENTER: If you don’t mind me saying Tony, it seems extraordinary that there is a federal parliamentary committee into this but you haven’t done the costing on how much it would take to change this here. We…
SMITH: Which bit in particular?
PRESENTER: The what you would like the Electoral Commission to put in place, which is the electronic…
SMITH: Oh no, they’ve provided some figures that we’ve got there in the report; I just haven’t got them to hand…
PRESENTER: Oh okay. Is it a lot?
SMITH: Look, if they were to roll it our right across Australia everywhere, they said it would be a prohibitive amount at this point in time, because you’ve got that sunk cost. But it depends which way they do it. We’ve made some recommendations, I won’t go through all of the detail, which…
SMITH: The way they did it in Griffith would cost a lot but we are… we’ve also recommended that they sit down with state and local authorities, and share some resources and start to mitigate the costs that way.
PRESENTER: Okay, sounds a little complicated. How much does it cost for the pencils every election?
SMITH: That’s a good question. Well even though the Act says you’ve got to use pencils and they provide the pencils, a lot of people still vote with pen and they’re counted, so…
PRESENTER: Don’t say that out loud!
SMITH: I’ll find out the cost of the pencils for you.
PRESENTER: No, that’s alright. Tony, it’s good talking to you. Thank you very much for the chat, I appreciate it.
SMITH: Thanks and good to talk to you again, Justin.
PRESENTER: Thank you, you too. Tony Smith, the Chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.
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