Election Day queue at Balmain Public School, Sydney. Source: Twitter
The rise and rise of pre-polling in recent state and federal elections has been closely watched by election nerds, with up to one-third of this year’s federal election votes cast early.
While pre-polling has taken off in the past decade, it’s a pain in the neck for the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), which must staff the booths, and for political parties who hand out leaflets outside polling centres and must time campaign announcements to catch the early birds. It goes on a bit too. This year’s federal election had a three-week window for pre-polling.
Officially, the option of pre-polling is supposed to be limited to certain people: those who live at least 8km from a polling booth, people who are sick or have disabilities and those who will be away for work or travel on Election Day.
Unofficially, it’s a free for all, with many people casting their votes early to avoid Election Day queues, despite knowing they’ll be waking up in their own beds on Saturday.
The proportion of early voters in this federal election is likely to be the highest ever recorded, intensified by the vote being held during school holidays, when many people voted early because they would be away from their usual electorates on Election Day.
Dr Stephen Mills from Sydney University’s Graduate School of Government said voting early was originally used as a way to take some of the pressure off Election Day but it had exploded unexpectedly in recent years.
“Elections have traditionally been all about voting on voting day. We have really only started moving away from Election Day voting relatively recently,” Dr Mills said.
“The other big driver is that it turns out to be wildly popular with voters and I think that’s taken everybody by surprise. It’s taken academics and political parties by surprise and probably taken the Electoral Commissioners by surprise.”
He calls it “the biggest change” in electoral voting habits for decades and says the main motivators are convenience and avoiding the queues and party activists at polling stations.
The AEC has always backed pre-polling to ensure that voters actually vote but underfunding of the Commission has aggravated the long queues outside polling booths, a notable feature on many Facebook pages by late afternoon on Election Day.
“You can see some of the pressure lines emerging around staff,” says Dr Mills. “We’re a big country. It’s a big exercise. I’m sure the Commission would like more voting booths, more ballot papers and people staffing them.”
He says it would help if pre-polling were managed better. He suggests a three-day window for pre-polling on the days immediately preceding Election Day, making it easier for political parties to complete all their campaign announcements and the AEC to staff booths. Research showed that between 50 to 60 per cent of pre-polling votes were cast in the final two days in the last NSW election.
Enforcing the eligibility rules for early voting would be time consuming and unhelpful, believes Dr Mills, and the AEC would not want to turn people away from the booths for any reason.
“We’ve got a set of rules which are not being observed so why have the rules? It’s bringing the process into a bit of disrepute if you’re turning a blind eye to the rules.”
This year’s federal election has already become famous for the long drawn out wait for results.
While it is not possible (or legal) to start counting early votes as they come in, Dr Mills says improvements could be made to the process. Drilling down into the practicalities of the way votes are handled when somebody votes outside of their area reveals a heavily manual process.
For example, if a person from Melbourne goes on holiday to Brisbane and votes early in Brisbane the returning officers will need to have the right ballot papers and then transport these to Melbourne once the person has voted. This out-of-electorate voting can hold up the count.
Although he is no advocate of electronic voting, Dr Mills says out-of-electorate votes should be made electronic, perhaps using a tablet or iPad at the polling booths.
But he says convenience cannot always be king and we should not retire the cake stand, sausage sizzle or festival atmosphere surrounding Election Day just yet.
“I think elections are wonderful events, so important to our nation and society and to our sense of empowerment as individuals.
“It just seems to be a bit of a shame that people are ducking into the supermarket to get it out of the way before Election Day.”
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