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Is our democracy a dodo?

Ms Dixie Coulton, Woollahra Council Liberal Party candidate, was denied a recount in council elections after her votes went missing. Photo: Andrew Woodhouse.

Opinion by ANDREW WOODHOUSE

There can be no greater threat to democracy than when voters lack confidence in their own political system.

Yet this is exactly what has occurred in December’s NSW local council elections.

On election day the New South Wales Electoral Commission’s (NSWEC) new iVote-counting computer crashed. Thousands of votes vanished.

The NSWEC’s purpose is “to facilitate the fair and transparent conduct of elections in New South Wales”. So now the NSWEC itself has asked the Supreme Court to adjudicate the election results of some, but not all, candidates. Many of those who missed out as well as those who were “elected” have rightly complained.

Justice Robert Beech-Jones has given me access to the court’s file. The allegations are that the NSWEC (1) didn’t permit technology to assist in voting, (2) the results aren’t reasonably certain and (3) results should now be declared void. Ouch!

There are 21 affected candidates (defendants) but there could be more.

Gareth Ward, independent NSW Lower House MP, is acting for councillor Kellie Marsh, the Deputy Mayor of Shellharbour Council.

He says that “the failings of the system are extremely disappointing: iVote failed”.

Fifty-four people were unable to cast crucial votes in Ms Marsh’s case.

Mr Ward is a vision-impaired person himself and is very strongly in favour of the introduction of technology-assisted voting.

“The Commission specifically asked for and received a considerable increase in public funding to help deliver a Local Government Election during a global pandemic,” Mr Ward notes.

The NSWEC admits that “due to performance issues with the iVote system … a number of electors  … were not able to cast a vote using iVote … the Electoral Commissioner [thinks] it is neither feasible nor appropriate to approve the use of iVote again.”

They admit they stuffed up. No apology was issued.

The court could leave the results unchanged, order a by-election for the impacted council seats only or order a by-election for all seats.

Looking local

Ms Dixie Coulton (Liberal Party) is another disaffected candidate.

She was a candidate in the Woollahra Council local elections who missed out on being a councillor by only 131 votes, meaning she was only 66 votes away from being elected.

Her iVotes were crucial on the day and indicated they were a determining factor, but iVoters were unable to log in properly, leaving them, in effect, off the roll.

The NSWEC has refused to allow Ms Coulton a recount, hardly a just outcome.

The ramifications of this case will have a ripple effect on all future NSW elections, the future of the NSWEC itself and how our so-called “democracy” works.

To follow the case the court has opened its own youtube channel here.

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