The final countdown: How the AEC is preparing for the 2019 election

The final countdown: How the AEC is preparing for the 2019 election

What needs 160 kilometres of string, 120,000 pencils and constant cyber security monitoring?

It may sound like a riddle, but the 2019 election is both the same as it has always been - numbers marked on paper with a pencil - and constantly evolving, with the Australian Electoral Commission always tinkering and improving.

People cast their vote at Bondi for the 2016 federal election.

People cast their vote at Bondi for the 2016 federal election.Credit:Edwina Pickles

If, as is predicted by political pundits, this year's election falls on May 11 or May 18, there's less than 100 days to go until about 16 million Australians cast their votes.

But, if the Prime Minister were to call in on the Governor-General and ask for an early election, Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers says the commission would be able to jump into action at a moment's notice.


"We are ready, we're always ready," Mr Rogers said.

"The over-arching point is if Parliament tells us to do something, we'll do it. We'll never be used as the reason not to implement or not to do something. But it's a big question, 'are you ready?'. A more accurate description is we're ready to be ready, because if we were ready every day of the year, the cost would be phenomenal."

The electoral commission doesn't lie dormant between federal elections - apart from industrial and commercial elections, the 45th Parliament has experienced nine by-elections, the same number as the 41st, 42nd, 43rd and 44th combined.

While section 44 of the constitution wreaked havoc for political parties, the extra by-elections actually gave the commission the chance to test new processes before they hit the big time in a full election.

"The by-elections provide an opportunity to test stuff and to do slightly new things. We're changing procedures all the time and it gives us the chance to bed some of those things down.

"So would I prefer to have nine? I'd probably prefer a few less than that but by and large it actually helps us hone what we're doing."

Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers says he doesn't get an early tip off on the election date.

Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers says he doesn't get an early tip off on the election date.Credit:Sitthixay Ditthavong

So what will be different at this election?

Since 2016 the electoral commission has worked with Deakin University on a "queue management strategy" - the science of making sure people cast their vote and get to their democracy sausage slightly quicker. It's not that waiting to vote is a huge issue in Australia, three-quarters of people waited 15 minutes or less last election, but just because it's better than a six-hour wait experienced elsewhere doesn't mean the commission is happy with it.

Fewer election officials will wrangle the giant tomes with lists of electors than ever before, with more voters to find their name checked off digitally on an electronically certified list than ruled through with a pencil.

It's not just lines in school halls and moving from analog to digital that election officials must contend with. Elections in Western countries in recent years have rarely gone by without allegations and debate around fake news and even interference from foreign powers.

The commissioner is cautious when talking about foreign interference, and while Mr Rogers is quick to say his comments aren't targeting any countries, community groups, stakeholder groups, individuals or political parties, he doesn't give a straight answer when asked if he has been alerted to any threat on a previous election or the upcoming one.

"We are taking prudent measures, based on what's occurred internationally and based on our work with other government agencies to ensure that our systems are safe and that Australians can have a great deal of confidence in the process," Mr Rogers said.

Just like in all previous elections, the commission is working with the Australian Signals Directorate to make sure the systems are secure.

Election officials won't be getting involved in slanging matches between political opponents when "fake news" becomes a line of attack, Mr Rogers said, emphasising the right to free political communication in Australia.

"The kind of fake news that I'm really worried about, is for example if people said the date of the election isn't that date, it's the week after. The fake news to disrupt the voting process is absolutely something we would take action against because that is preventing people from having their say."

While Commissioner Tom Rogers knows the answers to almost everything election-related, he doesn't know the big one, the date.

"Sometimes even my own staff think I have some kind of bat phone, but like everybody else I turn the TV on and see the PM's car going down Dunrossil Drive."

Sally Whyte is a reporter for The Canberra Times covering the public service.

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