With the 2022 federal election now underway, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) will soon be playing the critical role as an institution of governance which is its fate every three years. While most media focus in the next six weeks will be on the parties and candidates, the massive task confronting the country’s election administrators is also worthy of attention.
This is so not least because the better an election is run, the easier it looks to the voters. To those who are able to be in and out of a polling place within a few minutes, the process may look simple. But in fact, in a number of respects, the management of elections presents profound challenges, of a type seldom encountered by other public administration bodies.
First, an election is the largest and most complex logistical undertaking which a country faces in peacetime, since it involves providing a service to all adult citizens, potentially within a 10 hour period. It takes place, moreover, in a most unforgiving administrative environment: the AEC has one chance to get things right, and it must do so on the strength of work done by a temporary workforce of tens of thousands, some of whom will be on their first day in the job.
This workforce, furthermore, is decentralised: voting facilities need to be provided at a vast number of locations throughout the country, and special voting processes, such as postal voting, mobile polling and telephone voting, also have to be put in place for the benefit of those for whom attendance at a polling place is not straightforward.
Second, the ultimate test of the success of an election is that the results are accepted and respected by all key stakeholders, and confer legitimacy on the elected Parliament and government. We tend not to think about this very much in Australia, because acceptance of election results is deeply culturally embedded.
Recent experience in the United States, however, demonstrates the potential fragility of that culture of acceptance if elections are administered by partisans, and powerful figures are prepared to motivate fears of fraud or manipulation.
For that reason, elections are best conceived not just as a service delivered by the AEC, but as an undertaking of the entire community, in which all have to play a constructive part. Fundamental to this, however, is community trust in the AEC.
That is something that has built up over decades, but can easily be lost. To maintain that trust, the AEC is required to work in a way that is strictly politically neutral, and can be seen to be so. It is not sufficient that staff at all levels do their job correctly: they must also be able to demonstrate that they have done so, to the public and, potentially, to the courts (in the event that the election result is subjected to a legal challenge).
This calls for an unusually high level of transparency in operations, the most obvious manifestation of which is the right of candidates’ scrutineers to be present throughout the polling and counting.
Third, the AEC’s role is by no means limited simply to managing polling and counting. It is, in effect, a regulator, but one with limited powers. Most recently the organisation has been prominently involved in updating the federal register of political parties, a critical function since registration is a pre-requisite for a party’s name or abbreviation to appear against its candidates on the ballot paper.
At election time, the AEC tends to be the recipient of a large number of complaints lodged by contestants concerning the activities of their rivals. Some, such as those dealing with inadequacy of authorisation of election material, are quite straightforward to deal with.
Others, however, may reflect a misunderstanding on the part of the complainant about the AEC’s powers. It is, for example, often assumed that the AEC is under an obligation to “police” the election campaign in a relatively freewheeling way, such as by sanctioning false statements made by one contestant about another’s policies.
This view is misconceived: the AEC is a statutory body established under the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, and is only able to exercise powers conferred on it by the Parliament. Even if the AEC concludes that a particular piece of advertising is in breach of the provisions of the Act which proscribe misleading information relating to the mechanics of casting a vote, it does not in general have the power to order such advertising to be taken down; it must rather seek a court order to that effect.
These challenges are enduring ones; but each election also throws up new problems. The 2022 election will be the first nationwide poll in Australia held since the start of the Covid- 19 pandemic.
The AEC has had the advantage of being able to learn from its own experience at by-elections, and from the experience of its State and Territory counterparts, about how best to provide polling and counting facilities in a Covid-resilient way. Those elections have tended to be marked by an increase in postal and pre-poll voting, though - somewhat unfortunately - the period for pre-poll voting at the 2022 election will be shorter than was previously the case, due to recent changes to the law.
In 2022, the AEC will also be focusing on ensuring the robustness of the electoral process against hacking, and interference more generally. This again reflects events and concerns derived from the broader international electoral environment, from which Australia cannot assume itself to be isolated. Having said that, the transparent, paper-based processes used at federal elections represent close to best practice by globally accepted standards.
Taking all this into account Australians should again be able to look forward to the high point of election night, which is not when the winner claims victory, but rather when, in keeping with long-standing tradition, the loser concedes defeat gracefully, congratulates the winner, and thereby reinforces Australia’s democratic traditions at their best.
Banner image: AEC officials count votes during the 2019 federal election. Source: Flickr/AEC