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Australian Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers Alamy
Speaking from experience

'It's all about the loser': Australia has some advice for Ireland's new electoral commission

Since taking on the role over a decade ago, Tom Rogers has watched modern democracies transform.

ELECTIONS ARE ALL about the loser.

That is according to Tom Rogers, who has spent over a decade leading Australia’s democratic processes in his role as the country’s electoral commissioner. 

No small operation, the commission is tasked with regulating national elections and referendums, as well as educating the country on how its democracy works. 

It also runs up to a thousand industrial elections annually. These include votes on taking industrial action and electing positions within organisations registered with the Fair Work Commission, a large national and independent tribunal.

Speaking to The Journal from Perth, where the commission is redrawing Western Australia’s electoral boundaries, Tom Rogers says that building trust is a never-ending pursuit.

“Elections are actually all about the loser, not about the winner,” he said.

“I’ve never had a winner come to me and say, ‘I’m really unhappy with the way you ran that election’.

You’ve got to run it in a way that the loser is prepared to accept the result.

From when he took the position in 2013 up to now, Rogers has watched modern democracies transform.

“2013 was the first election where social media started to have a sizeable impact [in Australia], and since then it’s gone into hyperspace,” he said.

While misinformation has taken a new shape, Rogers says “it’s always been there”.

He gave one example: In 1675, King Charles II temporarily closed all coffee shops in Britain because “evil and dangerous” information was being spread. 

“What’s changed is the industrial means of spreading it,” Rogers said, “in a volume that we’ve never experienced before”.

‘Highly aggressive’

Before the 2022 federal election, when the current Australian parliament was voted in, the electoral commission launched a “reputation management strategy”, which focuses on assuring citizens that the election process is free and fair.

It was one of the first countries to create a disinformation register, where damaging or widely-spread false information can be listed online and debunked by the commission.

Rogers says it doesn’t challenge ideology, but rather clarifies rumours or beliefs relating to the electoral process.

Among the rumours that circulated in 2022 were that unvaccinated citizens couldn’t vote in the election, and that pencils were being used for ballots so that polling staff could erase and change votes.

There were also concerns that postal voting was “not secure”, and that the electoral commission was “aligned” with certain parties.

The commission ran a “highly aggressive” campaign on its social media platforms to spread the fact and counter the false stories

All this, he says, is a costly business – and it’s not getting any cheaper.

Australia has added several teams to its electoral commission, including a ‘defending democracy’ unit and a social media unit.

These days, they get fewer phone calls and email, as most now opt to message the commission directly on social media platforms.

“Quite often, if they don’t get an answer right away through direct messaging, they immediately go public on social media [with their concerns], and then that becomes another issue,” Rogers said.

Ireland’s new commission

Ireland established its own electoral commission in February 2023, after 30 years of governments suggesting the idea.

Last year it undertook the redrawing of constituency boundaries in preparation for the next general election.

The March referendums – on changing constitutional references to ‘women in the home’ and expanding the definition of the family – will be the commission’s first outing in a national vote. 

It launched its information campaign last week, issuing 16-page booklets to be delivered to two million households across the country.

While acknowledging the challenges ahead, including on how to tackle disinformation, chief executive of the Electoral Commission Art O’Leary has said he is not worried about resources.

Electoral commission veteran Rogers has been in touch the new team and says he’s wishing them the best. His advice: Be proactive.

“My hope for them is that they are as proactive as they possibly can be in dealing with some of these reputational issues,” he said.

He described the commission’s chief executive, Art O’Leary, as “a very decent bureaucrat who knows what he’s doing”.

Rogers said that any electoral commission looking to gain the public’s trust must have two things: operational excellence and good results.

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