With a week and a half still to go, the federal election is already over for around a million voters who have abandoned the rituals of election day in favour of the convenience of pre-poll voting.
A consensus is taking hold that this is a trend that’s gone too far, with perhaps as many as a third of all votes now expected to be lodged at pre-poll voting centres during the designated three-week period.
In the United States, debates about early voting occur against a broader backdrop of partisan warfare over voter suppression. Democrats favour longer periods to facilitate ease of voting and Republicans oppose them, reflecting the fact that conservative voters are on balance wealthier and have greater flexibility with their time.
In Australia though, Crikey’s own Bernard Keane was almost a lone wolf last week in arguing against the notion that democracy loses something if voters are not appraised of the full gamut of parties’ campaign pitches before making their choice.
Whatever the rights or wrongs, the development is presenting electoral authorities with a major challenge in getting the votes counted promptly — and also to media outlets in calling the result.
The Australian Electoral Commission yesterday offered the reassurance that all votes cast at pre-poll voting centres will be counted on election night. What this means in practice is that election day polling booths, which typically trade in hundreds or a few thousand ballot papers, will mostly have their votes in the system by around 9pm. The larger pre-poll centres, where totals can run into five figures, may have to wait until around midnight.
As the Victorian election and Wentworth byelection showed, pre-poll centres don’t always replicate the election day swings that are used to project results and call seats as won or lost.
While the reality in Victoria was quite bad enough for the Liberals, it was less extreme than it was made to appear early on the night, when such unimpeachable blue-ribbon strongholds as Brighton, Sandringham and Caulfield were being called for Labor.
For whatever reason, it appeared the wealthy inner-urban variety of Liberal had caught the pre-polling bug in particularly large numbers. A good deal of the furniture was saved when their votes were eventually added to the count.
It was a similar story in Wentworth, which Antony Green called for Kerryn Phelps at an early stage of the ABC’s televised coverage, only to have to move it back to “in doubt” when the anti-Liberal swing on election day wasn’t borne out on the pre-polls.
However, it should not be concluded that the pre-poll count will always be one-way traffic in favour of the conservatives, as there was little to distinguish pre-poll and election day swings in New South Wales.
As such, it’s impossible to be entirely confident how pre-polls will play out until the votes are counted and the numbers are in the system – and this means the suspense of election night is likely to be protracted if we are looking at any kind of a close result.
The implications of this can go beyond the simple matter of the theatre of election night. Whether one leader or another is decisively able to claim victory before the networks close shop can have a material impact on the public’s perception of the strength of their mandate and authority in office.
For such reasons, politicians have motivations of their own in raising doubts about the democratic merits of pre-poll voting as currently practiced.
While Scott Morrison made discouraging noises yesterday, suggestions have been raised on both sides of the fence that it might do well to pare the three-week period back to a fortnight, consistent with the practice at state level everywhere except Western Australia.
However, the most recent experience suggests this would only do so much to diminish the public’s growing enthusiasm for pre-poll voting: the rate increased from 26% to 36.9% at the Victorian election in November, and from 19.5% to 28.6% at the New South Wales election in March.
Whether politicians like it or not, early voting is now entrenched in Australian political culture, such that it is no longer politically feasible for them to do anything to seriously inhibit its exercise.