Voters lose faith after another poll debacle

LIKE countless other Queenslanders, I had a less than ideal experience voting at last weekend's local government elections.

I rocked up early on Friday morning to a nearby pre-poll centre located in an industrial park to perform my civic duty only to discover that the Electoral Commission of Queensland's website had led me astray about its opening hours.

Dozens of other disgruntled voters faced the same predicament and, like me, decided to return at a later time.

I'd hoped I could head back that night and vote without the crowd given the ECQ had announced some pre-poll stations would open later hours to deal with record demand amid the coronavirus pandemic.

However, its website failed to say which ones.

 

So I rolled the dice and returned late in the afternoon only to discover a massive queue and an ECQ official warning voters about a strict 6pm closing time.

I made it into the cardboard voting box just in time. Others were not so lucky. Dozens of angry voters were turned away.

I watched one bloke throw his voting card down in disgust and walk off.

This was just one small example of what was a shambolic election process.

A man casts his vote wearing a mask at Brisbane City Hall. Picture: Getty/Jono Searle
A man casts his vote wearing a mask at Brisbane City Hall. Picture: Getty/Jono Searle

Postal voting was closed too soon and phone voting was near impossible due to demand.

While people were forced to crowd at polling booths in clear contradiction to social distancing rules, party scrutineers were scrapped at voting centres to stop the coronavirus spread.

The ECQ cannot be entirely blamed for being unprepared on these issues.

This was an election that was forced on voters during extraordinary circumstances.

However, it can be blamed for the catastrophic failure of its technology on Saturday night which saw the publication of the count grind to a halt shortly before 8pm.

The elections that Queenslanders supposedly just had to have, including the two state by-elections in Bundamba and Currumbin, couldn't even be declared.

What a joke.

 

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was furious at the poll debacle, but it was her government’s job to make sure the ECQ got it right. Picture: AAP/Darren England
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was furious at the poll debacle, but it was her government’s job to make sure the ECQ got it right. Picture: AAP/Darren England

An angry Annastacia Palaszczuk insisted the next day that the ECQ had "one job" to do and had buggered it up.

She announced a review and tasked Attorney-General Yvette D'Ath with overseeing it.

The Local Government Association of Queensland was rather gentle in its criticisms despite councils paying huge sums to the ECQ to run their elections.

This may have something to do with the LGAQ pushing hard for the elections not to be called off amid the pandemic.

Its response certainly contrasts starkly with the reaction of councils after systemic problems before, during and after their last election in 2016, which also sparked a review.

Former Brisbane Lord Mayor Jim Soorley. Picture: Darren England
Former Brisbane Lord Mayor Jim Soorley. Picture: Darren England

 

In fact, many of the problems identified in that review, which was headed by former Labor Lord Mayor Jim Soorley, have occurred again.

"One of the biggest problem areas for the 2016 elections was ICT," Soorley's review said.

"The ECQ relies heavily on technology to conduct elections but does not have a permanent and full-time Chief Information Officer. There is an urgent need for the ECQ to invest in technology, including appropriately qualified and experienced personnel."

In its official response, tabled in Parliament by D'Ath, the Government promised to monitor progress on the recommendations "with interest" but shuffled most of the responsibility onto the ECQ.

 

Polling booths in Ipswich. Picture: AAP/Albert Perez
Polling booths in Ipswich. Picture: AAP/Albert Perez

 

This raises the obvious question that if D'Ath and the Government didn't ensure that the ECQ pulled up its socks up four years ago, how can voters have faith that they'll be any better this time around?

Queensland is just six months away from a state election so there's no time to dawdle.

While technical problems causing the delayed publication of results might seem like a first-world problem not really worth quibbling about, how can Queenslanders trust that the situation won't get worse?

What happens if the wrong results are published and the wrong person declares victory? What happens if results are lost entirely?

Impartial and effective elections are an essential part of a properly functioning democracy and in a worst-case scenario these kinds of issues could result in legal challenges and new elections.

The ECQ may be an independent body but it is still the Government's responsibility to ensure it can do its job.

In ordinary circumstances, the best approach would be to recall Soorley and his review team, or appoint someone independent, to find out what went wrong on the weekend, ascertain progress on the 2016 recommendations and identify a path forward.

With precious little time before the state election and a pandemic response that must take precedence, that might not be possible.

However, clearly someone must be made responsible for the latest election stuff-up and steps taken to ensure it doesn't happen again.

Originally published as Voters lose faith after another poll debacle


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