Manual voting and data matching sucks

June 10, 2013

We had a state election back in March. I was in Texas on polling day, so I made sure I found out how to vote early (voting in state and federal elections is compulsory in Australia). In days gone by, you’d either do a postal or absentee vote if you weren’t going to be near a polling place for your electorate, and those options are still available. But at some point the Electoral Commission decided that early voting was a good idea too, and there were many places over this large state of ours that offered early voting a week or so out from the election, including at the Perth domestic and international airports. I chose to vote at a local court house some 25 km away (50 km round trip).

I duly turned up on one of the days I could submit an early vote, found the place (a rabbit warren maze!), filled in all the required forms, showed my ID, got my name crossed off the electoral roll, and voted. I asked if there was anything else I needed to do — according to the people running this polling station there wasn’t. And a few days later I flew to the US, knowing I’d done my duty as a citizen of this fair state.

So imagine my surprise when I got this letter in today’s mail (I’ve highlighted some bits in yellow):

electoral_officeWhat the…? Let me count the ways this is SO wrong:

  • They address the letter to my full name, yet call me ‘Dear Elector’. Already I’m not happy… How hard is it to do a mail merge with my name in the salutation?
  • They tell me that it appears I didn’t vote. Really? How about you look at your own records, dammit!
  • They tell me that this matter might have to be dealt with in court. Oh yeah. Let’s use a sledgehammer to hammer in a tiny nail…
  • They tell me that if I did vote, I have to tell them where and how I voted. Excuse me? Did no-one check the records submitted by the early voting polling stations before sending out this letter? If they had, they would have seen that I voted.
  • They tell me that if I don’t pay the penalty and if the ‘Commissioner’ is not satisfied that I did vote, I could still be fined. Actually, as I’m filling in Part A because I did vote, I’m assuming I don’t have to pay a penalty, though that’s NOT clear from this letter. But if the Commissioner isn’t satisfied that I voted, he/she could still fine me. However, I have NO PROOF that I voted as the polling station did not give me any sort of receipt with my name and date on it. Great. My word against theirs.
  • They tell me that I can’t settle ‘this matter’ by phone. I guess they don’t want to deal with p*ssed off and angry voters who have legitimately voted, but got sent this ‘respond or else’ notice anyway.

So, what went wrong and how could the Electoral Commission fix it so that these notices aren’t sent to those who really did vote?

I can only guess what went wrong (I don’t *know*), so here’s my take on it. I assume that about 90% of those who vote do so at their local polling place and get their name crossed off the electoral roll. Yes, crossed off, as in a pencil and ruler by a human being who has been looking at names all day! How high tech is that? But I digress… If about 10% vote at another location, put in a postal vote, vote early, do an absentee vote, or don’t vote at all, then these outliers aren’t physically crossed off the location’s main electoral roll. After the election, presumably someone at the Electoral Office has to manually match up the outlier situations with the main electoral roll and manually cross off the names of those who voted in another way. Once that is done, then someone also has to visually check for names that haven’t been crossed off and flag those people for receiving letters such as the one I got.

Alternatively, maybe it’s too costly for the outliers to be manually checked off the main roll, so maybe the Electoral Commission just sends out letters to everyone who didn’t get crossed off the main roll (that 10%) asking them to ‘please explain’. Once they get a response back, the Electoral Commission then knows which outlier list to check and cross the name off. Anyone remaining after that process has to pay the fine or go to court to contest ‘the matter’.

How incredibly time-consuming and fraught with human error this system seems to be! For years, I’ve advocated electronic voting, preferably via the internet. There are ways to make it very secure, and while the initial implementation would be costly, it has to be cheaper in the long run than paying people to staff polling booths, scrutineer vote counting, training them in these activities etc. for an activity that happens once every few years.

But more importantly, electronic voting, if implemented correctly, should automatically match an individual against the Electoral Roll, and ‘cross them off’ without the human error associated with a pencil and ruler, and without the chance of a bundle of outlier records being missed and therefore not crossed off.

Those of us who did the right thing and voted because they were going to be out of the country on election day get mightily p*ssed off when the Electoral Commission can’t get their records straight and send us a ‘please explain or we’ll take you to court’ letter. Especially as they did not offer any sort of ‘you’ve voted’ receipt at early voting polling station.

It’s the 21st century — why are we still voting like it was the 1800s?

One comment

  1. We’ve been through a similar experience twice. Funny thing was that on one voting day they couldn’t find my husband’s name on the roll but allowed him some special voting arrangement whereby he could vote there and then and they would check up later that he was legit.

    But when they sent the please explain I couldn’t work out why his name wasn’t on the roll on voting day but was when they checked for no voters. And what happened to his missing vote?

    What if the election had been close and they hadn’t counted my husband’s vote? If it had been close and we had heard that they had not found his vote then I would have caused an uproar. 6.30 pm tv programs would love such an accusation. It goes down to the basic right to a vote AND be counted.

    My suspicion at the time was that if the vote had been close then they would have meticulously chased up every last postal/absentee vote. We all know how long it can take to settle close voting.

    If it isn’t close then perhaps they take the approach you suspected of not checking at all and expecting the poor voter to prove they voted. Obviously it is important to get a receipt for votes if you don’t vote at the standard desk and booth set up.

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