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‘An election is like a military operation’: inside Victoria’s poll

Warwick Gately
Warwick Gately

Running an election is a lot like a military operation, according to Victoria’s electoral commissioner Warwick Gately. And he would know.

After entering naval college at the age of 15, Gately rose through the ranks and ended up commanding the HMAS Torrens in 1994 and HMAS Adelaide during operations off East Timor in 1999.

But having three children and moving every two years took a toll on family life. He took a job as deputy electoral commissioner in Western Australia “responding to an advertisement for a significant event manager”, he told The Mandarin, “which if you think about military operations and a lot of work I’d done in Canberra — long range planning, contingency planning, force development, force structure planning — it sort of fitted.

“An election is an operation. It’s almost like a military operation, you’ve got to deliver at this point in time, you can’t change that date. You can’t say to government ‘look, we need another week, we’re running a bit behind’.”

Gately was appointed WA electoral commissioner in 2006. During his time in the West he was responsible for overseeing the 2005, 2008 and 2013 state general elections, as well as referenda on retail trading hours and daylight saving. In April 2013 he was named Victoria’s elections boss, and recently oversaw the 2014 state election.

One of the positive aspects of the electoral commission’s work, thinks Gately, “is that you have a defined outcome. It’s unlike some other departments where you could work for many years delivering a policy outcome or a program.

“We have an event, it is delivered, we can see an immediate outcome and we can do our analysis on that and look at the next event and move our plans to that. So there’s a lot of satisfaction in the work that you do.”

“There’s a media dimension to it, advertising, budget constraint, contingency planning.”

The VEC hires 20,000 casual staff for each election — people who must be recruited, trained and placed in the field for that one day — as well as periodically leasing property across the state for local electoral offices. Around 12 million ballots are printed. “We just about tie up the printing industry in Victoria for that one event!” It’s a big job.

“There’s a media dimension to it, advertising, budget constraint, contingency planning,” he said. “There was a lot of focus at the last election on business continuity. We overlook that at our peril, because you can’t say to government, ‘look, we can’t deliver the results because our systems have crashed or we can’t get access to our data because we didn’t replicate it’, so we put a lot of thought into that as well.”

Then there’s the sometimes sticky issue of stakeholder management. Political parties, candidates, the government of the day and voters must all be dealt with while complying with strict laws on what the commission can and can’t do.

“Candidates and political parties will often operate to the edges of the law and they’re quite good at that, they have a very good understanding of the law,” Gately said. “So it’s monitoring that. It’s the same in local government elections as well, with the players often trying to bring you into the game where, as the referee, you need to be impartial.

“You’ve got to be fair, equitable, you’ve got to deal with all those parties and candidates in the same manner. That brings challenges and you do at times come under pressure. So you’ve got that service provision side and that regulation side as well. I think most of the challenges I’ve faced would be in that space.”

Part of that is ensuring results are communicated quickly but reliably to the public. Although a small number of people following the count for the seat of Prahran in the recent election (in which Greens candidate Sam Hibbins ended up winning from third position on primary votes) complained that results were slow to be updated online, Gately says the commission was “pretty satisfied” with the VEC’s ability to provide timely updates.

On election night, “by 9pm we had nearly all district results in and re-broadcast”, though Gately adds that due to the rise of early voting “the Saturday count is only about 65% of the total vote”.

“That’s one of the challenges we’ve got, the desire for instant outcomes,” he said. “Everything can happen online quickly, but you’ve got to proceed cautiously. I’ve got to provide accurate results that stand up to scrutiny, that I can go to court with if I need to. So that’s the challenge.”

Electronic voting not ‘be all and end all’

Technology is increasingly altering the role of the commission. The VEC has developed an electronic voting system called vVote, which is limited to electors who are blind or with low vision, motor impairment or language or literacy difficulty. It’s kiosk-based, not internet-based, so voters must still make their way to a polling place, but then interact with the system either aurally or on the screen.

Importantly, vVote incorporates end-to-end verification. “You as the elector through certain protocols can ensure yourself that your vote, as you cast it, was received here in that same, correct form. Other systems haven”t had that,” Gately explained to The Mandarin in his Melbourne office.

“So it’s world-leading in that regard. We did a lot of work with universities overseas in building that system. It can be a little cumbersome when you see it, but it does provide that security. It uses open-source software as well so anyone can look at the way it operates. We’re very satisfied that that would meet those security requirements.”

“Every component of ballot paper handling was examined for integrity.”

Could such a system be rolled out to a wider portion of the community in future? Gately says it’s perhaps something the commission will look at, though at this point electronic voting will be “just one component of the voting services provided”.

The VEC is increasingly making use of its electronic roll system. Staff at polling centres with large absent voting populations — such as popular holiday destinations — now have access to a live roll; those voting outside their own electorate can cast an ordinary vote rather than a declaration ballot. It makes the voting and counting processes simpler and can help identify cases of multiple voting.

The commission is also updating its electronic election management system, which “underpins everything we do”, says Gately. The $16 million program has been phased in over four years — parts of the system were up and running for the local government elections in 2012, and other modules for the November state election. “We’re got a number more modules to do and, when the development is complete, that will see the VEC through for about 15 years,” he added.

The VEC is also looking at how best to update the elector database to ensure it works more efficiently.

Security, whether electronic or otherwise, is hugely important for the agency that ensures the integrity of the electoral system. The VEC decided to do its own review following the Australian Electoral Commission’s Western Australian Senate blunder in 2013. It has since put in place tighter on-site security arrangements for elections and better overnight storage and couriering procedures for ballot papers. “Every component of ballot paper handling was examined for integrity,” Gately said.

What’s next? Gately says the focus is on an analysis of the state election, “what we need to do, what we can do better as part of that continuous improvement cycle. We’ll write a report on that, which will go to the Parliament, they’ll give consideration to that, and it might have a legislative change component to it. That’s the standard cycle.

“What we need to do here is not only finish that process and advance those changes for the next state election; we need to look at our information management within the organisation, our IT strategic direction, how we can better interact with the community to make sure we are delivering the service they want. But that’s just part of the standard work in any event.

“The election management system development is nearing an end, after which I’ll look at the register of electors and I’ll look at online services and I’ll look also at, for example, election offices and how we employ casual staff to deal with changing community voting expectations. Our business systems require review so that our warehousing and logistics, in support of our operations, is more streamlined.”

There’s always another battle ahead.

More at The Mandarin: Vote early, vote often? Electoral commissioner wants voter ID

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.