Members of the 46th Parliament of Australia were elected at the 2019 federal election, which took place on Saturday, 18 May 2019.
Australia’s reputation as a successful democracy was upheld by the delivery of a transparent and robust election outcome. Australia’s electoral system remained in good health, albeit with identified room for improvement in the process behind the election event. The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) highlighted that it administers ‘a voting service that is one of the fairest, most open and accessible in the world’.
The election was participated in by a record number of Australians, with 96.8 per cent enrolled to vote (16.4 million people). This is an indicator of ‘democratic health’. The increased turnout from the previous federal election and steady levels of overall vote ‘formality’ were also noted by the AEC.
The AEC stated that the ‘2019 federal election was, in many ways, the most complex since Federation’, and called federal elections ‘perhaps the biggest peacetime logistical event in Australia’.
A trend towards increased complexity of federal elections requires analysis of the electoral process, a commitment to modernisation and security in order to address concerns raised after the 2019 federal election.
The 2019 federal election took place during a time of economic and social stability, in the ‘pre-COVID era’. Subsequent federal elections may not enjoy the level of certainty and precedence of elections past, and will need to respond to new concerns. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) notes the significant impact a pandemic or other emergency event would have on a logistical endeavour such as a federal election, and is undertaking an inquiry into this matter which will report in 2021.
Voting before election day
Nearly one-third (32.5 per cent) of votes for the 2019 federal election were delivered by the early voting, or ‘pre-poll’ system. This is an enormous increase from the 2010 election, which saw 11 per cent of votes coming in from pre-poll voting.
If the rise in pre-poll voting continues, there is a risk of creating a ‘voting period’ rather than a polling day. The significant increase of more than 31 per cent in pre-poll voting recorded in this election is unlikely to reflect a genuine cohort of voters unable to attend on the day, and strong consideration should be given to this trend.
Early voting eligibility, in theory, limits the eligibility of a person to vote ahead of the polling day. Generally speaking, a person should be unable to vote in their own electorate on election day for travel, access, medical or religious reasons, among others. In practice, however, it appears that the continued rise in pre-poll voting has seen many people subvert the eligibility requirements. Where a voter can be found on the electoral roll at a pre-poll centre, the AEC permits voters to self-assess their eligibility to cast an ordinary pre-poll vote. This permissive approach, to admitting persons for ordinary pre-poll voting, can mean that people choose this option without really understanding the eligibility issues. It can even result in disingenuous individual claims about whether electors are entitled to vote at pre-poll.
The pre-poll voting period, at three weeks, is a similar length to the last two elections but the trends show that people are tending to vote early very close to the polling day. The AEC stated that this trend does not affect Australia alone, with early voting numbers increasing ‘in just about every jurisdiction across the world, including every Australian state and territory, and closely related overseas electoral jurisdictions in Canada and New Zealand.’
The pre-poll voting increase may have been facilitated in part by the increase in early voting centres (from approximately 436 for the 2016 election to 511 for the 2019 election).
Inquiry participants raised concerns that pre-poll voting puts pressure on many parts of the electoral process, and that a lack of consistent application of campaigning rules across early voting centres created confusion. Professor George Williams stated that:
The result is a distorted election process in which many people elect their representatives based on incomplete information. Much of the electorate cast their ballot before Labor released its election costings and Prime Minister Scott Morrison launched his campaign.
Concerns raised by inquiry participants included: the cost of an extended voting period; the number of party volunteers needed and the toll of an increased workload; consistent access to campaign information across the period and safety at early voting centres.
One inquiry participant suggested that pre-poll voting could actually be a sign of high voter engagement and be a convenient method for a lot of voters. Another stated that although pre-poll voting added much-appreciated convenience for Australians, the duration of the early voting period was too long.
In its report on the 2016 election, the JSCEM recommended that the early voting period be no more than two weeks.
Appalling and abusive behaviour
Unfortunately, a number of incidences of abusive and damaging behaviour took place throughout the election campaign period which endangered the safety of workers, volunteers and those attending to vote, and marred an otherwise successful event.
Parliamentarians, candidates, campaign staff and party volunteers were subjected to abuse, and properties and vehicles damaged by vandals. In the most extreme example of violence during the campaign, a campaign volunteer was attacked and stabbed with a corkscrew.
Other parliamentarians were subjected to horrific and obscene personal abuse, with incidences of stalking and harassment of a female candidate and anti-Semitic vandalism occurring at various times throughout the campaign.
This escalation in abusive behaviour requires serious consideration and action in order to make the campaign period, and polling day, a safe place for candidates and anyone attending.
Issues related to a ‘shift’ in political and electoral advertising were raised by a number of inquiry participants. The volume, amount spent and rules surround advertising were flagged as areas for reform. Potentially deceptive and misleading conduct was also a key concern.
The AEC received more than 1,000 enquiries and complaints which related to electoral communication, and provided advice in relation to 544 of these and investigated 528.
The AEC’s ‘Stop and Consider’ campaign has sought to raise awareness of issues around legitimacy of information shared during election campaigns, and empower electors to question the validity of material shared.
The political advertising blackout period was critiqued by the News and Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra:
We recommend the political advertising blackout be extended to social media and other online platforms. A social media blackout could mitigate the influence on voting of some of the risk of online ‘scare campaigns’ and unverified news in the final hours of the campaign, and go some way to protecting more vulnerable members of the community and introduce consistency across all news media platforms.
This suggestion fails however to take account of the porous international nature of the internet and various application-based social media channels. Campaign expenditure is increasingly going towards online platforms and social media advertising. A blackout on online publishing by persons based in Australia would have the perverse consequence of enabling offshore actors to play an inordinate role in the closing days of an Australian election. This would particularly open our elections to influence by foreign powers, at the very time when foreign interference in democratic elections is an emerging global problem.
The path to an election comprises a series of set deadlines. A timeline of election milestones is below:
Announcement of election
Issue of the writs
Postal vote applications opened
11 April 2019
Close of the rolls
18 April 2019
Close of candidate bulk nominations
21 April 2019
Close of nominations
23 April 2019
Declaration of nominations
24 April 2019
Early voting commences
Mobile voting commences
Preliminary scrutiny commences
29 April 2019
Election advertising blackout commences
Closure of postal vote applications
15 May 2019
Count of votes
18 May 2019
21 June 2019
Last day for return of the writs
28 June 2019
Source: Australian Electoral Commission, ‘2019 Federal Election Timetable’, viewed 14 September 2020, <https://www.aec.gov.au/Elections/Federal_Elections/2019/timetable.htm>; Parliamentary Library, Research Paper Series 2019-20, 2019 Federal Election, 29 June 2020, p. 19.
About the inquiry
Objectives and scope
Conducting a review of the most recent Federal election is standard practice for the JSCEM, with a review of every election since the 1987 federal election which elected the 33rd Parliament.
On 29 July, the Minister for Finance, Senator the Hon Mathias Cormann, asked the JSCEM to inquire into and report on all aspects of the 2019 federal election.
A media release announcing the inquiry was issued on 9 August 2019, calling for submissions to be received by 20 September 2019.
The JSCEM also invited submissions from a number of relevant and interested parties, including: political parties, government agencies, academics, non-government and civil society organisations, businesses, peak bodies, social media platforms and individuals.
The inquiry received 172 submissions and held 9 public hearings which are listed at Appendix A and B respectively.
Summary of recommendations made in previous reports
The JSCEM’s Report on the conduct of the 2016 Federal election and matters related thereto (2016 election report) produced 31 recommendations. The JSCEM made a number of recommendations designed to enhance the work of the AEC, the Australian Government, and the operation of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Electoral Act) and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 (Referendum Act) to deliver improved electoral processes, and focused on:
enrolment and engagement;
vote integrity, scrutiny and counting;
voter identification; and
party membership and registration.
In its 10 recommendations to the Australian Government, the JSCEM recommended the Government commission a technical report on count and surplus transfer methodology for Senate elections; review penalties for non-voting; provide ongoing funding for the PACER program; investigate culturally appropriate enrolment requirements for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities; investigate the NSW iVote system and options to extend the system to vision impaired voters; tax deductibility thresholds for donations and concessions to political parties; adapt terminology; establish a permanent cyber taskforce; establish greater clarity regarding the role of social media services in the provision of news; and explore media literacy education programs.
The JSCEM put forward 10 recommendations directed to the AEC, focusing on areas for further research into lower voter turnout and media literacy in civics education; expedition of postal votes for Australia Defence Force personnel; improving co-operation with management of polling places; and a number of recommendations focused on encouraging improved accessibility for voters, and political party booth workers.
These accessibility recommendations to the AEC focused on physical access to polling places, supportive arrangements for voters who are unable to queue, and revision of information provided to be in more inclusive, clear and simple language, providing for a diversity of needs from voters.
Recommendations pertaining to the Electoral Act and the Referendum Act proposed the following amendments to:
party membership and registration requirements;
expand access to online enrolment;
change sequences for House votes and preferences;
require voter identification; and
restrict pre-poll voting to two weeks or less.
Additional recommendations included changes to Central Senate Scrutiny Centres including the role of data entry operators and introduction of a nonpartisan independent expert scrutineer.
The Government has responded to some recommendations through successive legislation, but has yet to provide a final complete response to all aspects of the 2016 report, or the Inquiry into and report on all aspects of the conduct of the 2013 Federal Election and matters related thereto (the 2013 report).
However, since the 2016 report the following actions or inquiries have been undertaken:
introduction of the ‘News media bargaining code’ by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission;
Senate inquiry into Foreign Interference through Social Media;
establishment of the Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce;
Digital Literacy Skills Framework;
Passage of the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020; and
Passage of the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2018.
A number of recommendations from the 2013 report were similarly reinforced in the 2016 report, with Voter ID and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement both common issues.
Chapter Two sets out a high level overview of the trends and key issues which arose from the 2019 election, including an examination of metropolitan and regional voting trends, state and territory breakdowns and key challenges for the AEC in future elections.
Chapter Three examines the rise in voting prior to election day, which was one of the significant takeaways from the 2019 election.
Chapter Four considers the shift in political advertising and the increase in volume and expenditure which was notable in the 2019 election, as well as the regulations regarding digital and offline publishers.
Chapter Five continues to discuss the role of publishers through considering media blackouts, evolving platforms and accompanying regulatory burden.
Chapter Six outlines the actions and implications of third party and foreign actor interference, highlighting methods to improve transparency and reduce misinformation.
Chapter Seven examines polling accessibility needs and the role of voter identification, regional and online polling options.
Chapter eight explores potential changes to Senate seats and the possible role of divisional representation.