The rise and rise of pre-poll voting

With now less than two weeks to go to Australia’s federal election, there’s been a lot of commentary around on the increasing numbers of people who are voting early, particularly via pre-poll centres. Many worry about whether some important part of democracy is being eroded.

Bernard Keane last week in Crikey pushed back against the critics, describing it as “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.”

He’s certainly right that this is a continuing trend. Nonetheless, the increase this year is striking. At this point in 2016, about 316,000 pre-poll votes had been cast. As of last Friday, the total this year was just over 660,000, or more than double. (You can download this year’s figures from the electoral commission here, and 2016 ones here.)

That’s not quite a fair comparison, because there’s been an extra day this time – in 2016 there was a public holiday on what would otherwise have been the first day of voting. But leaving out last Monday, four days’ worth this year has still been 537,000, an increase of just on 70%.

Ben Raue at the Tally Room has graphed the increase over the last few elections. As he says, if the trend continues for the next fortnight, there could be around five million pre-poll votes altogether, or about a third of the total turnout. Fifteen years ago, there were only 718,000.

You might wonder if this increase has come at the expense of postal votes, but it would appear not. They’ve been on a growth trajectory too, although not to the same extent. In 2004 postals represented 5.0% of the total – there were almost as many of them as there were pre-polls. By 2016 that figure had climbed to 8.6%.

This year’s figures do show a decline in postal vote applications: as of Friday there were 1.046 million of them, compared to 1.227 million at the same point in 2016. But those are only applications, not actual votes; not all of them will be returned, and there’s an element of arbitrariness in when they’re processed. Since the 2016 election had a longer lead time than usual, it’s reasonable to think that applications would have come in earlier.

And even if postal votes do (improbably) end up down a quarter of a million or so this year, that’s only a fraction of the increase in the pre-polls.

Absentee votes – those cast in person on election day, but outside of the voter’s electorate – have been on a downward trend, from 6.0% of the total in 2004 down to 4.6% last time. But that too is minor compared to what’s happening with the pre-polls.

I share much of Keane’s disdain for the “governing class” whose instinct is “to scold and regulate” those who want to vote early. But I nonetheless worry that what amounts to a very large experiment has been embarked on with no public debate.

Other key changes to our electoral system have generally been preceded by discussion about their merits. But no-one argued beforehand about whether or not it was a good thing to have a third of the electorate voting prior to election day, because no-one realised that was what was going to happen.

Voters like the added convenience, and I don’t blame them. But even among those who take advantage of it, there often seems to be an awareness that maybe something is being lost – the sense of democracy as a joint project, as something that we are all involved in together; a common experience that we undertake on the basis of more or less common information.

If early voting forces political parties to release policies earlier and stop relying so much on the last fortnight of campaigning, that’s a good thing. And Keane is right to say that much of the angst about it is driven by the self-interest of politicians (although that cuts both ways: because pre-poll voting demands extra resources, it can advantage the major parties at the expense of the rest).

It may be that some of this year’s increase is a one-off. With a change of government widely expected, it’s possible that there is more than the usual number of voters who have firmly made their minds up well in advance, and so are keen to get to the polls as soon as they can.

But if the trend continues – if, in another election or two, we are to get seven or eight or ten million pre-poll votes – then at some point the Australian public needs to have a good think about whether this is really what we want.

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