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Pre-poll voting
(Image: AAP/Bianca De Marchi)

Once again voters are being scolded by the governing class for behaving in a manner considered inconvenient for the latter. This time it’s the mass shift to voting early — a movement that’s been underway for several elections and which is increasingly terrifying political parties and paternalists with fixed ideas about how democracy should function.

In Australia’s version of democracy, the major political parties are paid for each vote they get, on top of the unlimited donations they can receive from those looking to purchase influence. The same parties have made voting compulsory, maximising this revenue — which in turn is handed to the media — and back that up with systems like automatic enrolment using drivers’ licences to ensure any recalcitrants can’t escape.

This has pushed the proportion of people enrolled to vote to over 95% in the last two years. The parties also require preferential voting, so that in nearly every seat, even if you don’t want to vote, eventually flows back to a major party — although they don’t get the money if you don’t vote for them. 

It’s not all the fault of political parties that we’ve ended up with a democracy that works as a money funnel to them. The abandonment of political engagement by the electorate over the last 50 years is to blame as well — we no longer have anything like the mass membership political party system of the 1950s. But parties have made the most of a bad situation.

Accordingly, for most Australians, the clearest signal that they don’t regard the political system as having any relationship to their lives or any purpose for them, is not available. In other countries, you can simply not turn up to vote. Here, you get hassled and fined. Despite that compulsion, the actual turnout of voters has fallen significantly — in 2007, nearly 95% of eligible voters turned out; in 2016, it was barely 91% — a full two percentage points down on 2013.

Australians demonstrate their disengagement and alienation from the system in other ways, too. The level of support for minor parties and independents, as everyone knows, has hit record highs, with nearly a quarter of voters opting to support someone other than a major party candidate in 2016. And, as predicted, pre-poll voting is setting new records this election, with more than 375,000 people having already voted — up two-thirds on the number at the same stage of the 2016 election, which was itself a new high.

That has left political parties — and much of the governing class — fuming. Parties used to structure campaigns around a five week, or longer, timetable; 2019 has been segmented into two quite different stages, a phoney war up to the end of the Easter holidays, and then the real battle over the last three weeks.

Voters charging off to vote before the real campaign has barely even started is wholly disruptive, and means that every day that goes by, parties’ advertising dollars, including Clive Palmer’s, reach fewer people who haven’t yet voted. It also requires massive resources to staff pre-poll voting centres to hand out how-to-vote cards — which draws volunteers away from doorknocking. That’s why the Joint Committee on Electoral Matters, controlled by the major parties, recommended after the 2016 election that pre-poll voting be curbed to just two weeks.

The idea of voters having the freedom to vote whenever they like is also alarming non-politicians. How can they vote before the parties release all their policies or the final costings for them?! “Early voters almost certainly cast their vote with incomplete knowledge of what the parties and candidates are offering. Gaffes and scandals late in the campaign may also become less electorally damaging,” warned two academics. “Our entire system of representative democracy … is seriously undermined by convenience voting,” said a Nine journalist. “There’s no reason why they can’t wait and vote with the rest of us.” Another academic suggested early voting prevented people from properly considering their vote, and that potentially “undermines an important social cohesion process, emphasising collectivity and equality, which is the point of having elections in the first place.” All of them mentioned election day BBQs, with one warning of the impact on community groups of lower election sausage revenue. 

Then there was the failed minor party candidate who tried to overturn an election result because early voting distorted “every candidate’s right to influence the decision-making process of electors”.

That sums up the entire complaint about pre-poll voting — that voters are daring to demonstrate agency, rather than act as passive recipients of manipulation by the governing class. Rather than seek to address why voters increasingly regard voting as a chore to be dispensed with as quickly as possible — reflecting their disaffection toward a political-economic system that many don’t believe serves them — the instinctive reaction of elites is to scold and regulate.

Peter Fray

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