In for the count

As we close out another pandemic-afflicted year, I look forward to better times ahead. Like other parents with young children, I had to hit ‘pause’ on many things in 2021. However, I am glad to have received a last-minute Christmas present, in the form of a Discovery Project grant!

For the non-academics amongst you, this is funding from the Australian Government (via the Australian Research Council) for research projects. These are very competitive and given out only once per year. The success rate this year was 19%. See here for details and stats about all funded projects.

What’s our project?

Together with my colleagues Michelle Blom, Philip Stark and Ron Rivest, we will develop methods for auditing election outcomes. Our project is called In for the count: Maximising trust and reliability in Australian elections.

The idea is to do something much quicker and cheaper than a recount, by randomly sampling the ballot papers and statistical inferring the result. Methods to do this are already available for simple election systems such as first-past-the-post. However, our preferential elections in Australia are more complex and still lack rigorous audit methods.

Why do we need to audit?

Scrutineering is a key ingredient in the success of Australian elections. We have an excellent track record in this.

Unfortunately, our Senate election is being increasingly automated, in a way that has not allowed for proper scrutineering. Instead of the ballot papers being counted fully by hand, they are scanned and counted digitally, using computer systems that are not open to scrutiny in the same way.

Do we do any auditing already?

At present in Australia, audits of this type are not conducted. However, our research funding couldn’t have been more timely. Earlier this month, the Australian Parliament recognised the need for more scrutiny and passed a bill that requires various process for verifying the security and accuracy of the Senate election. This will include a random sample of the paper ballots, to compare against their digital version.

The requirements aren’t fully spelt out in the bill, and I won’t delve into the details, but suffice to say that the key step of sampling the paper ballots is a common feature in both the bill and the methods we envision developing.

These requirements will kick in at the next federal election, which is now only months away. It’s exciting that our research topic will be of such immediate relevance.

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