In this year’s election, we have seen a spike in informal voting. So what exactly is an informal vote and can it affect an election outcome? Crikey intern Jasmin Pfefferkorn spoke to Professor Rodney Smith, from The University of Sydney’s Department of Government and International Relations, about informal voting in our federal elections.

What is the difference between a donkey vote and an informal vote?

A donkey vote is a vote that typically numbers the candidates down the ballot paper, with the first candidate labelled as 1 the second as 2 and so on. Less typically they may do it the other way around, beginning with a 1 on the bottom candidate. The donkey vote is considered formal because there is no way of distinguishing actual preference from a lack of consideration.

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An informal vote is a vote that fails to indicate preferences for all of the candidates, a vote that is left blank or a vote where numbers are left out or repeated. It can also be a vote that has been scribbled over and the ballot paper deliberately spoiled, or a vote whereby the voter is identified.

Do derogatory remarks on ballot papers mean that the vote is informal, even if it doesn’t obscure the preferences?

No not necessarily if preferences are clearly indicated.

How many informal votes have been recorded in this election?

The AEC is currently recording overall  5.6% of informal votes, which is what the percentage has stayed at over the past couple of days, so it is doubtful it will change.

How does the informal vote count compare to the last federal election?

The 2007 elections record of informal votes was 3.95%, which is a significant difference to this year’s election. There was a lower record of informal votes in 2007 than in 2004. In 2004 it was a little over 4%.

Has the record of informal votes ever been as high as the 2010 election?

Yes. In 1984 the record of informal votes was 6.3%. This is because a key change in the electoral rules during 1983 came into effect in 1984. The change was the introduction of above-the-line senate voting, so the suspicion was that people were just putting a 1 next to the candidate they wanted and that’s why informal votes were so high that year. Whenever you change the electoral rules, you get a spike in informal voting but that has not been the reason this time around.

So why is the informal vote count so high for this election? Do voters not understand the voting process? Is it because of compulsory voting? Is it an indicator that people are dissatisfied?

It would be interesting to know for sure … but when the AEC releases information about different types of informal votes it tends to be reasonably consistent from one election to the next. In Australian elections thus far, informal votes are mostly due to wrong numbering, which suggests a lack of understanding of the voting process. There is a view that there were more ballot papers left blank this time, which signals an increase in protest, but this is a very small proportion of voters. Say that one in every 20 voters vote informally, three quarters of those voters will have mucked up the ballot paper, which leaves only about 1.5% of people protesting by giving in blank ballot papers. Certainly there is a suspicion that people have been disillusioned with the Labor government and couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the Coalition.

Why was New South Wales in particular so bad? Is it because of the optional preferential selection in state elections?

I think that this certainly causes confusion, because they vote one way at state level and one way at federal. They have optional preferential voting in both New South Wales and Queensland for state elections.

How much of an effect does informal voting have on election outcomes?

Informal votes would have to be compared in marginal seats over electorates in every election to fully understand the extent of their effect.

Having three or four undecided seats is pretty typical in Australian federal elections, it’s just that we usually know who has won overall and therefore aren’t as interested. There are very few seats in which an informal vote would make the difference. One has to also ask the question “Who is casting informal votes? Labor or Coalition?”, because the two could be cancelling each other out.

There is a blurred area between protest voting and informal votes … How can you protest and still have your vote count?

The 1983 ‘No Dams’ issue in the Tasmanian Power referendum is a good example of how to protest. The voters would fill out their ballot papers correctly, but write on there somewhere, other than in the boxes, “No Dams”. Writing “No Dams” doesn’t officially count towards anything, but people got the sense that there were a lot of people writing “No Dams” and that it was therefore an important issue that needed addressing.