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All The Things That Have Gone Wrong With The Postal Survey

Letters lost and stolen, voting twice, silly jokes and other dramas.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics postal survey has had quite a few bumps along the way.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics postal survey has had quite a few bumps along the way.

Non-compulsory. Non-binding. Insecure. Confusing. Open to exploitation and theft.

These were just some of the criticisms of the Government's postal survey on marriage equality, and now four weeks into the eight-week voting period, sadly many of them have been realised -- in addition to many others.

Letters have gone missing, or been thrown carelessly on the ground in the rain outside postboxes, or been delivered to the wrong addresses; confusion has abounded over when and how replacement forms can be ordered; people have been selling their forms, or filling in other people's ballots; and even the very nature of the survey itself has been savaged by the Statistical Society of Australia, who know a thing or two about surveying Australia.

The latest controversy has been uncovered by an Australian reporter working in the United States for Mother Jones, who claims he was able to vote twice in the survey after being sent two codes to complete his ballot online by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Let's take a look at some of the cases which have been raised through the postal survey -- which still has four weeks to go.

Voting Twice

James West is a former Sydney resident who moved to the U.S. several years ago and now works for online publication Mother Jones. He published a report on Tuesday claiming he was sent two codes to vote online in the postal survey, a service made available to overseas Australians who didn't want to register their result via the post. He wrote in his article that he received one code online after registering on the ABS website, and then another separate code in a letter from the ABS.

"Was it possible, I wondered, that the system would validate both of these codes and let me vote twice? That would be a potentially troubling situation, because if I could do it, then others could, too. I had to find out. Lo and behold, both codes were accepted, and I was allowed to cast a second ballot, receiving the same message as before: 'Thank you. Your response has been submitted'," he wrote.

West reported that the ABS told him that the duplicate vote would be filtered out when the final counting is done, and that only his most recently generated code -- the one he received online -- would be counted.

"I tried to get a bit more information about how that system would work, why the system wouldn't automatically alert me to a duplicate code or that I had voted successfully already. The ABS said basically, don't worry, we''l clean this all up later in the week after the vote," he said.

In a statement to HuffPost Australia, the ABS said:

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has measures in place to ensure the secrecy of each survey response and the integrity of the process. These measures will detect any attempted multiple responses associated with an individual eligible Australian. Only their last valid response will be counted.

But he told HuffPost Australia that he was still worried about the security and reliability of the survey.

"As an Australian voter, I think any apparent inconsistency in the way votes are counted should be absolutely reported and worked out in the fullest, most transparent fashion," he said.

"I'm very happy to believe the ABS will reconcile my votes and I hope Australia can have the trust in them to do that, but I think it's incumbent on the public and journalists to hold the ABS to account for that, and to keep asking the kinds of questions that should be asked about a vote of political importance."

Postal Problems

Handing over delivery of a politically-charged and controversial public vote to the postal system raised a few eyebrows and elicited a few jokes initially, but sadly the flaws in the approach have been highlighted all too often already.

We've seen several infamous case of letters seemingly being dumped outside buildings or in streets, rather than delivered to homes. There have been at least three such incidents:

Other media reports have alleged letters have been stolen from mail and dumped, or that people have been receiving ballots addressed to past residents or total strangers.

Regular political elections do offer the means for people to vote via mail, but most votes are cast at secure polling places where the security and safety of ballots is ensured. Giving the entire vote over to postal ballots was a recipe for disaster, opponents of the postal survey have long claimed.

Ballot Brats

Of course, other than allegations of stealing and dumping ballots, other people have been sprung misbehaving around the postal survey. At least one person was found trying to sell his ballot on Gumtree for $600, and another on eBay for $1500.

A woman in the Northern Territory was also reportedly spotted filling out numerous ballots with 'no'.

There have been other controversies around the ballot process, with one Facebook user noticing that the results of a completed vote could be seen through the supplied reply paid envelope if held up to a light, sparking fears that votes could be tampered with.

"So we have wasted $122 million on a survey where a torch can reveal the answer through the reply envelope it came with," the Facebook user wrote online.

"So any postal worker with a vendetta against the opposing side can go through and remove votes as they see fit. (Or workmate if you post from work). Bravo government."

This led to a day-long furore over a silly joke from a Twitter user, who claimed "I work at the australia post in chatswood and I'm using a torch to check all ballots and throw out ALL no votes". The man does not work for Australia Post, and was not throwing out 'no' votes, but that didn't stop the ill-advised joke from being taken as legitimate by marriage equality opponents and even government MP George Christensen.

Experts Are Upset

Silly glitter incidents and tweets aside even the statistical gurus say the survey isn't the best way to go. The Statistical Society of Australia said in a statement last month it was "concerned" the survey "will not definitively reflect the views of the majority of Australians" and that the Government needed "more representative information" to make its decision on whether to legalise same-sex marriage.

"As by design it is not compulsory to vote... this means that the Postal Survey outcomes -- that is, the proportion of participating electors 'in favour' or 'against' will only be representative of the views of those who respond, rather than representative of the views of all Australians," the SSA said.

"Marriage equality is a sensitive and emotive issue. The SSA is concerned that, as a result, the correct interpretation of the Survey results will be missed or ignored by some community groups, who may interpret the resulting proportion for or against same-sex marriage as representative of the opinion of all Australians.

"This may subsequently, and erroneously, damage the reputation of the ABS and the statistical community as a whole, when it is realised that the Survey results can not be understood in these terms."

So What Now?

Well, we're halfway through the postal survey period. We've got half of it still to come, but probably the most extreme part is over.

All the forms have been mailed out, everyone should have received one by now, and the ABS said more than half of the population has already returned their form. In an update last week, the ABS estimated it had received 9.2 million of the 16 million survey forms, almost 58 percent, while a further update on Tuesday revised that number to 10 million, or 62.5 percent.

We may still see more dramas in weeks to come, and the campaigning is far from over.

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