So it seems that there’s quite the election ‘fever’ (yay sportsfans!) going around at the moment. Obviously the US election has had the bulk of the limelight and I have to admit to having followed it far too closely since late last year (Along with my election buddy, Soporific Frog. Thanks for the memories). Somewhat less grand (yet still of debatable importance) are the Victorian local council elections that are going on at the moment.

I have a colleague who has, for the past few years, worked for both the Victorian and Australian Electoral Commissions and this has lead to some interesting discussions into the way things are run in the background. Here are a few of the more interesting (I think) tidbits:

  • There are a worrying number of minor ‘issues’ with the in-house developed election software they use. Certainly nothing that would alter the outcome of an election (I hope), but enough to make me wonder again, why software like this isn’t open source? Surely the best way to debug software like this is to publish the source 6 months before its used and wait for the feedback from a raving pack of civil libertarians.
  • As an example of the above, I present the following. You may or may not know that candidates are allowed to provide a 150 word spiel about themselves which is sent out with elections papers so that people get an idea of who all the candidates are. Now whilst there are some guidelines for this (ie no bad language, no personal attacks on other candidates etc) there is basically no editing of this allowed by the electoral commision, Eg if there’s typos or gramatical errors in the text provided, they will get printed verbatim. Now, given the number of candidates in these elections, the process is relatively automated in the software. It does a word count and, assuming all is ok, it goes through. Now a little bird tells me that the algorithm used in this software initially counted the number of spaces and used that to determine the word count (WC=N_Spaces+1). So, combine this algorithm with the fact that gramatical errors will not, as a matter of policy, be corrected, and you might begin to see a problem.
    Example: “Here is my spiel.Do you think its,any good?”
    So the above 10 word sentence, now gets read as being only 7 words long. Whilst this is a small thing, there are a lot of ‘small’ people who tend to stand for council elections that take this stuff very serously. It is also something that should’ve been picked up LONG ago. Now, I’m not suggesting this has altered the outcome of anything, but complaint from a candidate would cause great headaches for the electoral commission this late in the game.
  • The rules behind preferential voting systems are complex. Whist the premise itself is simple, there are an awful lot of edge case scenarios that have to be dealt with and these make it next to impossible for a human to accurately and quickly determine a result. Computers to the rescue! Specifically, a spreadsheet to the rescue. Yes, all the rules of this system have been applied within an Excel spreadsheet, which has then gone through appropriate certifications, then sold to the VEC, who plugs in votes counts and it spits out the winners. Whilst there’s nothing implicitly wrong with using a spreadsheet for this function, to me it just all seemed a bit amateurish.
  • Despite, all of the above, the VEC and AEC do a phenomenal job of running elections.  They enforce processes to cover nearly EVERY scenario and I have nothing but confidence in the elections held within this country. This said, hearing about all these procedures etc only makes me more concerned about the way elections are run in the US. So many things you read about that occur there simply leave me gobsmacked and I can’t get my mind around the fact that a country as developed as the United States, can’t even follow rudimentary (and commonsense) guidelines to ensure a genuine result. Craziness.

Finally, I feel it would be remiss of me not to mention Mr Troy Anthony Platt, a candiadate for the Ballarat North ward. As mentioned above, candidates are allowed to provide a 150 word summary of themselves and, I can only assume, in the tradition of the Official Monster Raving Looney Party, Mr Platt has provided a most interesting blurb:

Vote 1 Troy Anthony Platt, the Starmaster Ranger Wizard of the North ward. North ward Internationale Airport:Romamesque gothic style 5 gates Iternational, Marine Tera Aero tunnel,3 domestic gates, Immigration Hotel 888 levels, 100 security Home Defence Guards, 12 courts rooms, 3 lounges, two customs,motorbike race track,car race track,car workshops,zoo,swampland undersea living trials,Aquanauts harmonic shaft,16 medical centres,swampland viewing displays,horse stables,equestrian centre, Auditorium Entertainment facilities,7 theatres, stock exchange, chicken sale yards,multicultural university, 144 thousands jobs bringing in 101 billion yearly. Internationale Wathaurong Eureka Musical Sounds of Poetry Tour:Canada,USA,Ireland, UK,Spain. Eureka Stockade:The Movie Kristina Bumble Bee. isbn-1-4120-3222-9, A knights Fire Volume 1&2 ISBN 1-4120-6423-6, Fire exits, light fittings (radiation covers)Traffic hazards, customer service behaviour, 10 o clock public House lockout, seven drinks man/four drinks women, legalised canibis, touch one mate, touch waltzing Matilda

The above was indeed published and distributed along with voting papers etc, to all members of the appropriate ward. Now, whilst such randomness maybe common in the UK, apparently here it caused something of a stir. Infact, this went all the way to the VECs legal council to determine whether or not it was allowable. It was eventually decided that it had not broken any of the rules (At least, the rules as they currently stand, ahem) and therefore it had to be published. Good for you Troy Anthony Platt.