In many seats around Australia, the number of informal votes was higher than the number of votes that decided the margin in the electorate. Areas with higher migrant populations, as well as poorer electorates, recorded higher numbers of informal votes.
The marginal seat of Lindsay had the highest number of informal votes in the country, with 11,756 votes not counted. Labor’s Emma Husar took the western Sydney seat from the Liberals’ Fiona Scott with a margin of 1683 votes.
The seat in Australia with the lowest number of informal votes was Kooyong, in Melbourne leafy eastern suburbs, where just 1738 votes were recorded as informal. It’s a safe Liberal seat, held by Energy and Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg.
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The six seats with the highest percentage of informal votes are all in New South Wales, including Blaxland, Watson, Fowler, McMahon and Parramatta. The seat of Herbert, where Labor’s Cathy O’Toole edged out Ewen Jones by 37 votes, recorded 6444 informal votes.
Informal votes include votes that have been left blank, scribbled on (but otherwise left blank), or incorrectly filled out, meaning that some of these informal votes could have been done by accident. Others ignore the correct process in protest or apathy.
Across the country, the rate of informal votes for the 2016 federal election was 5.03%, a lower rate than at the 2013 election, by 0.88%. That election had the highest rate of informal voting in 30 years, at 5.91%.
The turnout level has hit a new low, however, with more than a million people not bothering to vote at all. Across the country, the turnout rate was 91%. In the Northern Territory it was 79%. Tasmania had the highest turnout rate, at 93.57%. The NT also had the highest rate of informal votes, at 7.35%, with the Australian Capital Territory recording the lowest percentage of informal votes, at 2.76%.
In Queensland, seats like Forde, Capricornia, Longman and Flynn were decided by fewer votes than those recorded as informal. Cowan in WA, Hindmarsh in SA and Batman, Chisholm, Melbourne Ports, Dunkley and La Trobe in Victoria are also on the list.
Professor of politics at the University of Adelaide Lisa Hill says that in this election there has been a higher rate of informal votes for those voting above the line in the Senate, while the rate of informality for those who voted below the line has gone down, reflecting the level of complexity in Senate voting.
Hill says unintentional informal voting is highest in areas with “high concentrations of new migrants, people with lower levels of education and less money, where people have a lower level of literacy and numeracy competence”.
This isn’t an argument against compulsory voting, she says, but one for better voter education. “We know that when the AEC targets those people with education campaigns, they are really effective. They’re people that are trying to cast a vote, they aren’t confused about who they want to vote for, they are actually very sure of who they want to vote for.”
Complexity of voting protocol, confusion between different voting systems at a state and federal level, and English as a second language are all factors that inhibit people from voting correctly, Hill says.
“A lot of people say that we shouldn’t have compulsory voting because then you are likely to get more politically uninformed voting, but this is not true; we know that in compulsory voting regimes people have better levels of political knowledge than in voluntary systems. It causes people to go out and educate themselves.”
“In compulsory voting regimes people have more respect for the law, because they actually voted for the law makers; people also have more satisfaction with the way the democracy is working.”
“There’s less wealth inequality and more wealth distribution in compulsory voting regimes, and governments are more responsive to what people want,” Hill said.
The change to the Senate voting system is an example of the government responding to public opinion, Hill says.
Intentional informal voting is a different kettle of fish to unintentional formal voting, and over time the AEC has recorded what, exactly, people do when they lodge a ballot paper that will not count towards the election result. In 2010, blank ballots made up 28% of informal votes, taking over papers that had only a number one. The AEC also measures whether people write a profanity or not, and whether it’s politically motivated.
In an election in which the government has just a one-seat majority in the lower house, the number of informal votes, as well as the lack of turnout, shows that every vote really does count.