2019 federal election voting
(Image: AAP: Julian Smith)

In last weekend’s Victorian state election, the incumbent Labor government did to the Coalition what a Tyrannosaurus rex did to that nerdy lawyer in Jurassic Park. It was bloody, near-historic and it has also provided more questions* than answers.

How is it that no one came even close to predicting the outcome? Why was there such insufficient vetting of candidates? Where does this leave the Liberal Party’s internal culture war? (*Not exactly the same questions raised in Jurassic Park, but still quite alarming).

Some of this will have little relevance to other states, or federally, but there is one topic that will reverberate for years — pre-poll voting. 

When pre-poll voting closed on November 23, the day before the Victorian state election, the Victorian Electoral Commission revealed that 1,391,284 votes had already been cast — a considerable rise from the 912,967 early votes in 2014. It’s a continuation and a sharp jump on a trend that has been developing across most states and territories for the past few years.

Why is this happening?

In the 2016 federal election, 31% of all votes (4.5 million) were cast prior to election day — a stark increase on the 26% (3.6 million) early votes in 2013. Postal votes were also up, from 1.1 million in 2013 to 1.2 million in 2016. And in the 2015 Queensland state election, more than 200,000 pre-poll votes were cast.

Pre-poll voting was first allowed in 1984 for those who are seriously ill, travelling or working on election day, as stated in the Commonwealth Electoral Act. However, in a 2013 Australian Electoral Commission report, it acknowledged that people are increasingly voting early so it doesn’t interrupt their leisure time. It was labelled a trend that will continue into the foreseeable future:

It could be that electors consider the inconvenience of ordinary voting at a polling place on the Saturday as an infringement on their time and are prepared to avail themselves of other voting opportunities that may be more convenient.

Marcus Phipps, lecturer in political marketing at the University of Melbourne, tells Crikey the root of this trend can be explained by the “Netflix effect”. “We have grown accustomed to being able to consume things when we want and how we want. We no longer have to wait all week to watch our favourite show on a Sunday night. This is the same with voting; if we didn’t have pre-poll voting, the idea that you have to do something, especially something that is compulsory, on a particular day, time and location, would be the complete opposite to our on-demand consumption and expectations.

“We’re very used to this idea that we can have control over what we do and when we do it.”

Convenience aside, the impact of pre-poll voting is going to have dramatic impact of how political parties run their campaigns, especially when it comes to announcing their big ticket policies.

Playing the long game

Campaign launches, which have traditionally been left to the last week of an election, must now be held early. Labor, Liberal and the Greens all launched their Victorian election campaigns in late October, giving them a full month to sell their own brand of government.

This means more resources — staff, volunteers and money — will be needed to try to sway voters earlier, including directly at early voting stations. While major parties can afford to do this, it leaves independents and minor parties at a significant disadvantage, so much so that following the 2014 Victorian state election, a failed candidate unsuccessfully challenged the results on the basis that pre-poll voters had breached electoral law by not signing a pre-poll declaration.

“Early voting … is distorting every candidate’s right to influence the decision-making process of electors within the election time-frame,” she said.

Phipps says that it’s possible, with increasing pre-poll voting, that some seats will have already been decided days or even weeks before election day. “Politicians need to shift and understand that they need to sell to voters at every moment in the campaign, especially in the early days,” he says.

The Victorian election already reflected some of these shifts; some major policies were launched as far back as August and nothing of major state significance was announced in the last two weeks of the campaign, triggering complaints of this being a particularly dull campaign.

The other major impact of the pre-poll vote is that these votes, like postal votes, are the last to be counted, which provides significant waiting time for results. Anyone frustrated by the two weeks it took to confirm the Wentworth byelection result will likely need to get used to such waits.

So, is this a problem? Swinburne University researcher Nathaniel Reader has argued that, technically, early voting breaks with a “key tenet” of democracy — that people should vote at the same time. Doing so, as much as possible, “confers equality on the contest”. 

Keep an eye out for how things run in the upcoming elections.

Is this a simple evolution of democratic engagement, or a bigger problem? Let us know what you think by emailing [email protected]