Informal votes - if they don't scrub up, should we let them into the election ball

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Informal votes - if they don't scrub up, should we let them into the election ball

Posted 11/07/2011 by Brenton Holmes

At every federal election hundreds of thousands of citizens are lodging votes that don’t count towards the election of their representatives. These are votes that don’t meet the requirements to be considered ‘formal’—and their number is growing. At the 2010 election, 729 304 House of Representatives votes were declared informal—equivalent in number to the formal votes cast in 7.8 average electorates. This informality was 5.5 per cent of the vote—the highest level since the introduction of compulsory voting in 1924. The only other election with such unusually high levels of informality was at the 1984 election when the new Senate voting system was introduced, and many people were confused by the changes. Of course, voters may deliberately choose to cast an informal vote. At the 2010 election the Australian Electoral Commission considered 48.6 per cent of informal votes to be deliberately informal.

In its latest report on the 2010 federal election, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters devoted considerable attention to the problem, but there was disagreement along party lines about the best way to remedy it. All members of the Committee favoured the retention at the federal level of the existing full preferential voting system for House seats. But a majority also favoured amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act that would include a ‘savings provision’ for ballot papers which would enable some votes to be counted that would otherwise be rejected as ‘informal’.

The idea is based on a ticket voting system that has been in operation in seven state elections in South Australia over 26 years. The system is that if a ballot paper has one or more preferences indicated, but does not indicate a full set of preferences as required, it may still be counted if the preferences that it indicates match what is on a party’s or a candidate's official order of preferences (‘ticket’) lodged with the Australian Electoral Commission.

It works like this:

Registered political parties or candidates lodge one or two ‘tickets’ with the Australian Electoral Commission, each recommending an order of preferences. A ballot paper on which a voter has not indicated a full array of preferences may be ‘saved’ from its informality when:

(a) a first preference has been marked by the voter (by the number ‘1’ or a tick or a cross) for a candidate who has lodged a ticket; or

(b) a first preference and some —but not full—preferences have been marked by the voter and these are consistent with the ticket(s) lodged.

Where two tickets have been lodged, the ‘saved’ ballot papers that are consistent with those tickets are assigned to one or the other through a regulated process that assigns the ‘saved’ ballots on almost an exactly 50-50 basis.

Of all the ballot papers that get saved under the ticket voting provisions, the preferences of the vast majority of them don’t have to be examined. This is because the bulk of the saved ballots could have been formal based solely on their first preferences—and in fact it so happens that the majority of saved ballots are papers that only have a ‘1’ indicated. Candidates who win—or come second—typically do so on the basis of their first preference vote, and only once candidates are eliminated from the count do their preferences get distributed. Thus distributed preferences from saved ballot papers have minimal ultimate effect on the election outcome for a candidate. But voters who cast those ballots are at least having a say in the election of their representatives.

On polling night, the votes that may yet potentially be saved are considered informal. The savings provision is later applied by the Returning Officers once they are satisfied that the requirements for ‘saving’ have been met by the markings on the ballot paper. Thus the South Australian system remains a full preferential system in terms of what a voter is required to do, with the savings provision applied after the votes have been cast and counting is under way.

There are a couple of interesting measures that are in place in South Australia to help preserve the effectiveness of this approach. Firstly, it has been made illegal to advocate any other way of voting other than in accordance with the full preferential system. Secondly, it is illegal to advertise the ticket voting (savings) provision—although the provision is publicly accessible online through the government website.

The SA approach was designed and driven by electoral administrators rather than politicians, and officials told the Joint Committee that they were not aware of any objection ever having been made to the process, nor any attempt made to amend the legislation. Nor had any concerns been raised in post-election inquiries and reports. Electoral officials acknowledged that administering a provision that is largely kept under wraps is somewhat ‘tricky’—but they considered the amount of votes saved made it worthwhile. It seems fair to say that the provision is in keeping with the principle of erring in favour of citizens’ enfranchisement.

But critics of the approach argue that it undermines the integrity of the system, and Opposition members of the Joint Committee submitted a dissenting report setting out their objections to the proposal, and to several other majority recommendations. They regarded the South Australian ticket voting system as flawed, arguing that it allowed ballot papers that had not expressed a valid preference to be ‘deemed’ to have done so, and being thereby admitted to the count ‘according to preferences expressed by other than the voter themselves’. In other words, the informal vote has been turned into a formal vote without the knowledge or permission of the voter concerned.

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