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Scanning of ballot papers

Updated 27 Feb 2014

Introduction

At every election, the paper ballots are counted in each polling place or counting centre after the close of polling at 6pm.  At each ACT election from 1989 to 1998, the recheck of ballot papers and distribution of preferences that takes place after polling day, at a central scrutiny centre, was also undertaken by hand.  This manual counting of all ballot papers after polling day was a very slow and painstaking process.  At the 2001 and 2004 elections, after the first manual count of ballot papers at polling places, the preferences shown on all paper ballots were data entered at the central scrutiny centre, rather than being manually rechecked.

At the 2008 and 2012 elections the ballot papers were scanned and intelligent character recognition (ICR) software used to identify preferences shown on every formal paper ballot.  Any preferences that could not be identified by the software or that did not meet business rules were verified by electoral officials.

All informal ballots continued to be manually rechecked. Scrutineers were entitled to observe the process and seek rulings on interpretations placed on ballot papers.

The scanning system will be used again at the 2016 election, subject to funding to upgrade the system.

The scanning process

The scanning process worked as follows:

All formal ballot papers were parcelled at each polling place or counting centre relating to first preferences counted to a particular candidate.

At the central scrutiny centre, starting on the Sunday after polling day, formal ballot papers for each polling place were counted into batches of 100 papers. Each batch was allocated a batch header with a unique batch number related to that polling place. Each batch was then scanned and imaged, and the image read by intelligent character recognition (ICR) software.

The ICR software interpreted the preferences shown, and the Robson rotation version number printed, on each ballot paper.

The scanning system used a range of strategies to ensure that preferences are captured with 100% accuracy.

After each batch of ballot papers was scanned, Elections ACT operators were presented with an image of each preference number on each ballot paper, and conducted an initial validation check on the accuracy of the scanned results (for example, by checking every “1” on every ballot paper , every “2” on every ballot paper, and so on).

After this initial check, the ICR software applied a set of business rules to each ballot paper.  Those ballot papers that the ICR software interpreted with a high level of certainty passed the business rules check were automatically admitted for counting.  Any ballot papers which had unclear numbers, or did not pass the business rule check (for example having a break in the sequence of numbers, or appearing to be informal), were flagged as requiring the verification of an Elections ACT officer.

The Elections ACT officer investigated each ballot paper requiring verification by comparing the on-screen image of the ballot paper with the ICR interpretation of the preferences on the original ballot paper to determine whether there has been any error in scanning, interpretation or validation.

The Elections ACT officer corrected any identified errors in scanning, interpretation or validation on the computer system.  If necessary the officer viewed the original ballot paper if the scanned image was not sufficient to resolve any doubt.

If an Elections ACT officer changed a record of a vote on-screen, that change had to be verified by a second Elections ACT officer.

Scrutineers were entitled to observe the scanning, validation and verification processes, and where a scrutineer believed that a ballot paper has been incorrectly interpreted, the interpretation could be challenged.  Challenged ballot papers were re-examined by a senior electoral official.

The above process continued until all formal paper ballots had been scanned and all ballot papers verified.

Once all scanned ballot papers were verified, the preference data from those ballot papers was transferred to the electronic voting and counting system (eVACS), where the data was combined with the results of the electronic voting, and the computer program distributed preferences under the ACT's Hare-Clark electoral system.

All ballot papers identified at the manual count at the polling place as informal were manually rechecked at the central scrutiny centre.  Any papers ruled at that stage to be formal were scanned.  Ballot papers confirmed as informal were not scanned at that stage.

Background

The October 2004 ACT Legislative Assembly election saw the continued use of electronic voting and vote counting in the ACT, with a 70% increase in the number of electronic votes recorded.  However, 176 340 ballot papers required data entry.  The recruitment of skilled data operators capable of completing this task in a timely manner was a difficult and costly undertaking.

In its report into the use of electronic voting and counting following the 2004 ACT Legislative Assembly election, the ACT Electoral Commission identified this part of the election count as open to human error, which could in turn reduce the accuracy of the count.  In its report, the Commission recommended the investigation of scanning technologies for the electronic capture of data from ballot papers at the next election.  The investigation was undertaken with a view to replacing the data entry of ballot papers. 

Elections ACT identified the basic requirements for an electronic data capture system as being one that will scan ballot papers, be able to read and interpret hand written numbers, allow for correction and verification of the captured data and provide an output file that is able to be read by the electronic voting and counting system (eVACS).

Given these basic requirements, Elections ACT released a consultation paper in May 2006 to determine if it would be possible to scan ballot papers for an ACT election.  The responses from industry to the consultation were very positive, indicating that the technology existed to provide accurate scanning and capture of ballot information.  Information gained from the consultation process enabled comprehensive requirements for the system to be prepared, leading to the calling for quotes for the development and implementation of a ballot paper scanning system.

In June 2007 a contract was awarded to Secure Vote Pty Ltd, later to be known as SEMA Group Pty Ltd, to develop a system for the scanning of ballot papers for ACT Legislative Assembly elections.  Secure Vote/SEMA Group demonstratedly extensive experience in the use of scanning technology and in particular its application to electoral related operations. From then until the 2008 election, the system was developed and extensively tested to meet the exacting standards of accuracy and confidence set by the ACT Electoral Commission.  An independent audit of the system, conducted prior to the 2008 election, concluded that the software was free of any code that could fraudulently or inadvertently alter the preferences of a voter.

The scanning system was again successfully used at the October 2012 ACT election, with the final result announced mid afternoon on the Saturday after polling day, beating the 2008 record by a few hours. A report on the operation of the system is in the Report on the ACT Legislative Assembly election 2012, published by the Commission in August 2013.