How do you cut down on the number of people who cast informal votes?
How about changing laws so people don’t have to vote for people they
don’t want to? That’s the gist of a submission to the Commonwealth
Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry into
the federal election from Antony Green.

At the 2004 Commonwealth election, around half a million
voters wasted their trip to the polling booth. These were voters who
despite their best efforts to cast a vote for their candidates of
choice, had their House of Representatives ballot papers rejected
because they failed to meet the exacting formality requirements set
down in the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

A total of 639,851 ballot papers were excluded from the House of
Representatives count, 5.18% of all votes cast, up 0.36% from the 2001 election. Yet the same voters had less
difficulty with the far larger and more complex Senate ballot paper,
466,370 informal ballot papers, 3.75%, down 0.14%
votes from 2001.

Research at past elections has shown that between a quarter and a third
of informal ballot papers have no discernible first preference votes.
Presumably these ballot papers represent the politically alienated,
voters confused by voting procedures and voters simply unimpressed by
the choice of candidates and parties. Many of these voters will have
turned up simply to avoid being fined.

That leaves between two-thirds and three-quarters of informal votes
with preference for one or several candidates on the ballot paper.
These votes would have counted except for the other compulsion voters
face, compulsory preferential voting. Despite a clear preference being
evident, the complex rules for House of Representatives elections set
down by the Parliament simply will not allow such votes to count
towards electing representatives…

Antony’s diagnosis? “Why blame the voters? Why not blame the
legislators, who preside over an electoral act which allows certain
types of votes to be formal in the Senate, but the same vote in the
House is informal? Why not blame the legislators for insisting on
compulsory preferential voting, the cause of most informal votes?”

The cure? ‘There are solutions to high informal voting, but it requires
a deviation from the current fashion in Australian politics that all
wisdom somehow emanates from Canberra. Different formality rules are
applied at state and territory elections, and there are clear lessons
that can be applied to Commonwealth elections. First, jurisdictions
using optional preferential voting have lower informal rates. Fully
optional preferential voting applies in New South Wales, Queensland and
the ACT, and all three jurisdictions currently have the lowest level of
lower house informal voting.”

The Committee is yet to make the full submissions public, but a condensed version is up on the Online Opinion site.

Peter Fray

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