Since the election date was announced, both the Labor and Liberal parties have done mass mail-outs of postal vote application forms in key seats. You’ve probably received one.

But rather than asking you to send your application forms directly to the Australian Electoral Commission, both parties are intercepting the forms by including reply paid envelopes featuring their own addresses.

Once they receive the postal vote application, the major parties process voter details in their electoral databases before sending the application forms to the AEC.

Dr Peter van Onselen, Howard biographer and Associate Professor of Political Science at Edith Cowan University, says most voters would be “completely unaware” that their postal vote application forms were being processed by the major political parties before the AEC gets its hands on them.

“In a sense it’s a violation of the right of a secret ballot … people would be sending [their postal vote applications] not realising the information is being logged in a database,” Dr van Onselen told Crikey.

NSW Liberal Party state director Graham Jaeschke refused to answer questions about the postal vote mail-outs, including whether the Liberal Party was misleading voters. He said there was “nothing new” about the story, and that he didn’t think the issue was “relevant”. However, it’s fair to suggest the view of the political class may differ from that of the voting class.

While the AEC promotes the availability of postal voting through the media, advertising and its website, traditionally the major parties have played a leading role in sending the application forms to voters.

Any political candidate can do such a mail-out, however it is generally only the major parties that do — it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover just one electorate.

Nor does the practice of political parties collecting voter information through postal vote applications and failing to disclose how they will use it contravene the provisions of the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

Candidates are not required to inform voters that they can send their postal vote application form directly to the AEC if they want their details to remain private.

As politicians are exempt from the Privacy Act, there is nothing to prevent them collecting and recording information about voters.

However, the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 and the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1902 enshrine the secret ballot in federal elections.

The AEC dodged the question of whether recording voter intention through postal vote applications was in breach of the principle of the secret ballot, weaselling the issue thusly:

All postal voting envelopes containing actual ballot papers, completed by the elector, are returned directly to the AEC and strict guidelines are followed by AEC staff in the opening and counting of all envelopes and ballot papers to ensure the secrecy of the vote.

Meanwhile in the ACT, Greens Senate candidate Kerrie Tucker has accused ACT Liberal senator Gary Humphries of misleading voters with his postal vote application forms. The reply paid envelope Mr Humphries sent to voters did not include his name, although it was addressed to the Canberra Liberals.

Ms Tucker wrote to the electoral commissioner to complain that Senator Humphries’ postal vote application form “looks, and is intended to look, like an official document”.

Senator Humphries took exception, saying the Greens were being “completely self-serving and disingenuous” as they had not criticised the ALP for similar mail-outs.

He said most people would be aware their application forms would be sent to the Liberal party. However he claimed to be unsure of how the Liberal Party would use the information gathered from his postal vote application form mail-out.