For more than 95 percent of Australians, the daunting task of voting below the line in a federal senate election is too much to ask, especially for a Saturday morning.
So it will come as no surprise that during the upcoming WA senate recount, as with every senate tally since 2001, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) will call upon some electronic assistance to calculate the complex system of preferences and trickle-down the redistributions that decide the seating pattern in the nation’s upper house.
While Greens communications spokesman Scott Ludlam waits to hear whether he has won back his seat, electoral officials will be feeding ballot data into a limited network of computers running its EasyCount tally system.
“The system takes the entered information for each of the votes cast in a Senate election, performs the distribution of preferences, and indicates which candidates have been elected,” an AEC spokesman explained to iTnews.
As soon as polls close, the results of formal above-the-line ballot papers are entered into the system alongside the group voting tickets that the votes represent.
A single, stand-alone PC is used to collect the entered information to “prevent hacking” according to a parliamentary submission made by the AEC early on in the system’s life.
A two-pronged process is then required to calculate and double check ballots filled in below the line.
In 2013 the number of boxes to be numbered on these complex ballots ballooned out to more than 100 in some states.
As a result of this added layer of complexity, two AEC data entry operators enter the same ballot data into the system separately, so their counts can be compared to verify that data entry discrepancies are not allowed to influence the final outcome.
The two sets of data, from above the line and below, are then reconciled in EasyCount and their preferences are combined.
The process can still take several weeks, even with EasyCount’s help.
The AEC can’t pinpoint exactly how much time the electronic system has saved compared to manual counting, but said depending on the size of the contest it could result up to a few weeks in more complex counts.
But as candidate numbers grow, the system becomes more and more necessary.
“The previous manual process was time-consuming, and would have increasingly taken longer with each election as both the Australian population and the number of Senate candidates grew," the AEC spokesperson said.
"The automated calculation of Senate preference flows allows the AEC to provide an accurate result to the Australian public in a reasonable timeframe."
The system was developed internally by the AEC in 2001, when an upgrade to Windows 2000 rendered an existing COBOL-based application the commission was using to tally-up union elections incompatible with its standard operating environment. It was re-written as a Microsoft Visual Basic application and runs on Microsoft SQL.
Right now the specialist system is only used for federal senate elections. The AEC confirmed it is the only IT tool used to count votes for the national houses of parliament.
However, electoral commissioners in Australia and New Zealand have collectively acknowledged that the democratic process will one day go digital, from the polling booth to the counting station, and that governments should be prepared for the inevitable move online.