Two recent State elections threw everything we thought we knew about elections and voting behaviour out the window.
The Victorian election in November 2014 proved that contrary to all conventional political wisdom, voters will readily throw out a first term Government.
This was more than reinforced in Queensland in January when voters not only threw out the first term Newman government but brought Labor back from an historic loss in 2012, which reduced their numbers to a small ineffective rump, to minority government.
The swings were so large in some seats that ABC psephologist Antony Green thought something was wrong with his computer software.
So with political pundits and experts still shaking their heads about the fickleness of Australian voters and their capacity to punish governments who betray their promises, there is another growing phenomenon that does not seem to attract a great deal of attention yet potentially could completely change the way campaigns are run in the future. That is, the rise of the numbers of Australians who vote before Election Day.
While early voting in the form of postal voting has been in existence for around a century, it is just over recent years that it’s newer form, pre-poll voting has started to grow exponentially from election to election.
For example, from the 2010 to the 2013 Federal Elections, the number of people who voted by pre-poll alone increased by nearly one million votes. One million votes.
At the 2014 Victorian state election, early voting set new records with nearly 340,000 extra pre-poll votes recorded from the previous election, representing nearly 30% of votes cast prior to Election Day. In former Premier Denis Napthine’s seat of South-West Coast that figure was a staggering 50%.
Although Queenslanders are historically slightly less inclined to vote early, nonetheless in last month’s election a record number of electors (200,000) cast their vote early.
Under most electoral laws pre-poll votes are now considered “ordinary votes”, that is, they are treated the same as a vote cast on Election Day itself and counted on the night. Previously they were “declaration votes” which meant they were placed in a special envelope and counted after all the Election Day votes were cast.
Additionally, pre-poll voting opens 19 days before Election Day, or nearly three weeks. Although the legislation sets out the specific circumstances under which a voter is eligible to cast a pre poll vote, this is being increasingly subverted by polling officials who appear to almost encourage early voting and of course voters themselves who when realising there is a pre-poll station open near them are often heard to say “I’ll just get it over with”. In other words a large majority of people voting early do so because it’s more convenient.
While early voting would clearly take some of the pressure off election officials on polling day, the rapid rise in pre-poll voting is not without its problems for the Electoral Commission. It faces the additional costs of ensuring there is adequate staff to officiate at pre polling stations as well as the costs and logistics of securing more pre-poll voting places. It is not unusual these days to come across lengthy pre-poll voting queues.
For political parties and candidates it means they have to find the extra resources and volunteers to be present at the pre-polling booth for three weeks. Clearly for smaller parties, independent candidates and even the major parties operating in difficult political terrain, this is a real challenge. Yet they cannot afford to miss the opportunity of
handing out their how-to-votes to anywhere between a quarter to a third of the electorate.
If a large percentage of the electorate has already cast their vote well before Election Day, how do parties campaign? Does this mean they have to have the majority of their policy announcements out with three weeks to go? This of course gives their opponents plenty of time to pick the policies and costings apart – which might be a good thing.
And the even bigger question – what happens if a major story breaks in the final days of the campaign that has a major impact on one of the candidates or parties that could have changed the entire course of the election, but because such a large percentage of voters have already voted it’s too late.
Some would argue that people who vote early either are committed rusted-on voters who have already made up their minds or the kind of voters who have little interest and simply vote early to get their names ticked off. This may be true, but given the increasing volatility of the electorate, a significant revelation could be all it takes to change a vote.
Finally, can political parties use early voting to their advantage? What is to stop parties from conducting exit polls of early voters as they do in the United States, and using the results to change their campaign rhetoric or policies?
While it’s clear there’s no push from either the collective Electoral Commissions or the politicians to tighten the rules around early voting, there’s just one final question – given the diminishing significance of the actual Election Day - why bother have
it at all?
CEO Address, Benjamin Haslem
Expansion, Alexandra Mayhew, Ben Haslem & John Wells
Voter Volatility, Nicholas Wright
The rush to the polls, Julie Sibraa
Zoo2Zoo: Peddling for suicide prevention, Benjamin Haslem
White House 2016: A form guide, Isabelle Walker
The celebrity sell, Alexandra Mayhew
The local council website, Benjamin Haslem
New Government Ministry lists