As the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters begins its enquiry into the conduct of the 2004 Commonwealth election, one of its interests will be the continuing high rate of informal voting.
At the 2004 Commonwealth election, around half a million voters wasted their trip to the polling booth. These were voters who despite their best efforts to cast a vote for their candidates of choice, had their House of Representatives ballot papers rejected because they failed to meet the exacting formality requirements set down in the Commonwealth Electoral Act.
A total of 639,851 ballot papers were excluded from the House of Representatives count, 5.18 per cent of all votes cast, up 0.36 percentage points from the 2001 election. Yet the same voters had less difficulty with the far larger and more complex Senate ballot paper, 466,370 informal ballot papers, 3.75 per cent, down 0.14 percentage votes from 2001.
Research at past elections has shown that between a quarter and a third of informal ballot papers have no discernible first preference votes. Presumably these ballot papers represent the politically alienated, voters confused by voting procedures and voters simply unimpressed by the choice of candidates and parties. Many of these voters will have turned up simply to avoid being fined.
That leaves between two-thirds and three-quarters of informal votes with preference for one or several candidates on the ballot paper. These votes would have counted except for the other compulsion voters face, compulsory preferential voting. Despite a clear preference being evident, the complex rules for House of Representatives elections set down by the Parliament simply will not allow such votes to count towards electing representatives.
Clearly both forms of compulsion play their part in creating informal votes. The argument for compulsory voting is one of civics and minimum levels of political participation and the outcome is some spoilt ballot papers. But there is no civics argument in forcing voters who do turn up to vote, to then have to express a preference for every candidate. If compulsory voting sets a minimum level of civic participation, then compulsory preferential voting pushes the bar even higher.
Since informal voting became a political issue after a dramatic rise in its incidence at the 1984 election, most researchers and commentators have tended to address the issue of how voters can be made better informed on how to cast a formal vote.
To which my response is, why blame the voters? Why not blame the legislators, who preside over an electoral act which allows certain types of votes to be formal in the Senate, but the same vote in the House is informal? Why not blame the legislators for insisting on compulsory preferential voting, the cause of most informal votes?
For a formal House vote, a ballot paper must have a clear first preference, followed by a complete, unrepeated and unbroken sequential ordering of preferences for every other candidate on the ballot paper. The only “savings” provision is that if the last preference is blank or out of sequence, the final preference can be implied.
So in a field of 10 candidates, a vote will only be counted if it has valid preferences from 1 to 9, any missing or incorrect final preference being deemed to apply to the tenth square. A vote with less than nine preferences is informal. A vote with any duplicate preferences is informal, including any votes with two 9th preferences. Any elector who votes creatively, such as preferencing up from 1 using odd numbers, base prime numbers or factors of ten, would also have their vote declared informal. An elector who voted sequentially before marking the last square 100 would be casting a formal vote, but the same sequence with the last two squares marking 99 and 100 would be informal. Any use of ticks and crosses makes the vote informal, but a ballot paper completed with roman numerals is formal.
Yet at the same time, voters have less difficulty with the more complex Senate ballot paper. If voters cast a “below the line” vote, they must provide a valid sequence for every candidate, though a more generous set of savings provisions allows up to three sequencing errors. But most voters choose to vote “above the line”, casting a single vote in a group ticket voting square. In this case, a single “1” is formal, and the formality rules also allow a single tick or cross to be treated as a formal group ticket vote.
But any voter who uses this method on the House ballot paper is casting an informal vote. Past evidence has shown that between a third and half of all informal House ballot papers are of this type, which strongly suggests that voters are using the much simpler Senate voting system to mark their House ballot papers.
This article has been based on a submission to the current enquiry of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the conduct of the 2004 Commonwealth election. Submissions to the enquiry will be published at the end of April.
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