Thursday, May 23, 2024

Review finds human error at heart of vote counting errors

A review of vote counting errors during the 2023 General Election has found that there is room to strengthen the way that votes are counted and recorded, and how the process is quality assured.

“While the Electoral Commission found that the errors did not change the candidate or party vote outcomes in any electorates, it is essential that the public has trust and confidence in the integrity of the election process and the official election results,” said Auditor-General John Ryan, whose Office conducted the review.

“I agreed to independently review the counting errors at the request of the Electoral Commission.”

The Auditor-General says mistakes happened because some ballots were misplaced, which led to incorrect counting; a ballot box was not counted during the official count; and some people made data entry errors.

Quality assurance checks were not well designed, understood, or done consistently across all electorates, and there was no check to confirm that all potential errors that were identified had been resolved, he said.

Auditor-General John Ryan.

A final quality assurance process that would usually take two days was completed in a few hours, under extreme pressure, on the day the official result was announced, the report found.

“Unexpected events also put pressure on staff and counting processes. This pressure arose because over a hundred thousand more people than expected enrolled to vote in the two weeks leading up to the election. There were also more special votes, which take longer to process. The Electoral Commission, as a consequence, did not have enough resources to respond to the increased enrolment and special vote volumes, or to recognise and address associated risks,” said Mr Ryan.

The Auditor-General also noted that there was a gap in the Electoral Commission’s risk management, which was more focused on external risks than on the effectiveness of the count process, and quality controls, particularly after election day. This meant that it did not take appropriate steps to manage the risks associated with the vote counting process, he said.

The Electoral Commission was assessed as having limited flexibility with many aspects of election processes because they are set by legislation and are very manual in nature.

“Despite the expectation of accuracy in the count, a vote count process based on paper ballots and manual counting and data entry is likely to result in errors,” Mr Ryan says.

“Improved assurance processes will help, but these too are not infallible when put under time and other pressures.

“Investments in systems and processes to improve accuracy are needed. Until then, our election processes will remain vulnerable to the kinds of human error that occurred in the 2023 election.”

The review makes recommendations aimed at strengthening election count processes. These include improvements to controls, quality assurance, recruitment, training, and risk management.

“Running an election is a significant and complex undertaking. My findings should not be taken as a criticism of any individuals,” says Mr Ryan.

“The Electoral Commission staff we spoke to were committed to running an election with integrity, had worked long hours for extended periods, and were deeply disappointed that the errors occurred.

“The Commission has told me that it is has accepted my recommendations and is working to make improvements,” said the Auditor-General.

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