Always wait for the postals

Austria has now added most of the postal votes from Sunday’s election to its tally (a small number – maybe about 40,000 – won’t be counted until Thursday), and they make an important change to the shape of the result.

Most of the difference is for one party: the far-right Freedom Party, which evidently has a very poor postal vote operation. It won only 18.6% of them, which brings its total from 27.4% down to 26.0%. That’s a gain of 5.9% and 11 seats from last time, but it’s no longer a record for it, since it won 26.9% in 1999.

It also means it’s no longer in second place: the Social Democrats, who gained fractionally on the postals, have 26.9% and 52 seats, one more than the far right and the same number that they won in 2013.

The minor parties also improved with the postals. The liberal NEOS now has 5.3% and ten seats (up one); Peter Pilz’s List (dissident Greens) has 4.4% and eight seats; and the Greens jumped to 3.8%, still below the 4% threshold for representation. The two Greens tickets combined are down 4.2% from 2013: bad, but not quite as bad as it looked on Sunday night.

There’s little change at the top of the table, with the centre-right People’s Party improving just 0.1% with postals to finish on 31.5% and 62 seats, up 7.5% and 15 seats on 2013.

None of this changes the basic arithmetic: any two of the three major parties will have a clear majority, and it’s as sure as these things get that those two will be the People’s Party and the Freedom Party. But the centre-left has won a somewhat bigger consolation prize than it appeared on the night.

So the various media outlets that reported the “fact” that the Social Democrats had dropped out of the top two for the first time in their history should have been a little more cautious.

The lesson is a general one; postal and absentee votes (which go by various names in different countries) are often not counted until a day or two after the rest, and while it’s rare for them to make a big difference, even small differences in the right places can be very important to the outcome. But apart from a general warning that “results are only provisional” (which could mean anything), most reports ignore such inconvenient matters.

And the problem is getting worse; with technological change and declining social capital, most countries are seeing substantial rises in the number of votes cast other than at polling places on election day – the postals in Austria are up more than 200,000 from 2013.

So don’t believe the headlines on the night. Check first for what they might be leaving out.

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