The federal government has asked the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) to carry out a survey to determine if Australians are for or against gay marriage.
Citizens will be asked to answer ‘yes or ‘no’ to a simple question: “Are you in favour of the law being changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” Some informal votes will no doubt also be recorded.
The ABS will then advise the government of the results. This all sounds very simple but unfortunately for the ABS there are some catches. One is the timeline, received on August 9, requires the agency to return the results on November 15.
Additionally, there are potential legal obstacles to get the data needed to run the survey, which the High Court will have to decide on very soon. Finally, the suggested method of running the survey is to use a postal process, which has well known limitations.
It is worth noting the direction from government does not specify the method to use, so postal is only one option. Postal elections are commonly used in Australia for local government elections.
Western Australia has non-compulsory postal elections which have an average turnout (ratio of electors who return a ballot for scrutiny to those on the roll) of 27 per cent.
The ABC’s election analyst Antony Green has documented – in great detail – the type of problems the proposed postal survey may face with respect to participation.
My guess is that the proposed postal survey will only yield a participation figure of 50 per cent, at best, and will tend to exclude younger electors and anyone who is away from their enrolled address – a lot of people.
The problem with a survey which is both skewed and has low participation is that the public will rightly claim the outcome is not representative, which will be disappointing after a spend of around $122 million.
The only solution to this problem is to add internet voting to the mix of survey options and have both a postal and internet survey.
This is not a crazy thought, as NSW already has an internet voting system called iVote which could do the job and would work along-side a postal survey system. It’s a system I know well because I was responsible for developing and running it during the NSW 2015 election.
I can say with some certainty that adding an internet survey to the postal vote won’t have any detrimental effect on the postal component of the survey as it will simply run in parallel.
Having run this type of parallel approach before at two general elections I am confident ABS can do the same for its survey.
The process from an elector’s perspective would not change if they only want to vote using the post. They will receive a postal pack which will have a paper survey, which they can choose to complete and return.
However, it will also have instructions on how to vote online. Should they not receive a postal pack they can simply go online and register to participate in the survey and receive their voting credentials via SMS, in a manner similar to how many banks approach online security.
Should an elector be found to have voted twice then one of the votes would be rejected when the returned envelopes are processed. This is the process currently used in NSW.
If iVote was implemented in conjunction with postal as suggested above it would have the effect of increasing the participation by a significant amount, potentially bringing it to a more acceptable 70+ per cent.
I believe the system could be implemented in the timeframe available using existing contract arrangements and would not add significantly to the overall cost of the survey process.
I know this would be a courageous decision for the government and ABS but isn’t that what we are being told we must do – be brave and embrace the new world of digital transformation?
Ian Brightwell is a consultant and experienced CIO. Ian was CIO and Director of IT at the New South Wales (NSW) Electoral Commission in Australia. His role was responsible for the provision of all IT infrastructure and information security for the Commission and led NSW electronic voting initiative (iVote) at the 2011 and 2015 elections.
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