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Voting for the future

26 June 2019

Secrecy and convenience don’t always coincide in Australia’s highly accessible electoral system


“This most egalitarian of rituals”: A polling booth in New Farm, Brisbane, for the 1947 Queensland election. Truth/State Library of Queensland

“This most egalitarian of rituals”: A polling booth in New Farm, Brisbane, for the 1947 Queensland election. Truth/State Library of Queensland

When Australia went to the polls last month most of us voted at a polling place on election day. No great surprise there, but the proportion hit a record low, 58.8 per cent of formal lower house votes. The figure has been shrinking fast over the past decade: in 2016 it was 68.4 per cent; back in 2004 it was 88.9.

The others? Around a fifth of all formal votes, or 8.5 per cent, were postal, a drop from the all-time peak of 8.8 per cent in 2016. The rest — a shade under a third of votes — were pre-poll, cast by voters attending a designated polling place in their electorate in the three weeks before election day. That’s a big leap from less than a quarter in 2016, and a huge rise on 2004’s one-in-seventeen.

What accounts for this change in behaviour? It’s push and pull: voters increasingly want convenience; parliamentarians respond by making voting easier; the Australian Electoral Commission makes new arrangements and encourages people to avail themselves.

It doesn’t always go as planned: fewer Australians pre-polled than expected at the 2016 election, which might have contributed to longer-than-usual queues on election day (though the new Senate ballot paper was the main reason). Pre-poll numbers exceeded expectations in 2019 (and reports suggest polling places on 18 May were on the whole pretty quiet).

If the rate of change between 2016 and 2019 is replicated next time, the 2022 election will be the tipping point: by the time election day comes around, most Australians will already have voted.

Does this matter? Should we care?

Since the very first colony-wide elections in Australia, people have demanded that voting be convenient. In the earliest elections, from the 1840s, men could vote in any and all electorates where they owned qualifying property. Because travelling massive distances to do so was often impractical, they could go to the capital city on polling day and vote for multiple electorates there.

From the 1850s all adult men could vote in most colonies, and they now did it under the “Australian ballot,” with the government supplying voting papers containing a list of all candidates. (Plural voting — voting in more than one electorate — was on the way out, for lower houses at least.)

With comprehensive postal services, and the great public expense of erecting polling stations to service large areas, logic pushed towards an obvious accessory: voting through the post. One early South Australian suggestion was for postal voting, and only postal voting, to be used for designated large electorates. But the Australian countries, as they called themselves, had just put in place a complicated and expensive system for guaranteeing secrecy, making it impossible for one person to prove to another how he had voted. Voting from home created a giant loophole, because it could be done in the presence of others.

Eventually, gradually, postal voting came into existence, but the earliest versions resembled what we would call pre-poll voting. Postmasters acted as electoral officials, and individuals would vote in their presence. Having ensured secrecy, postmasters then forwarded ballot papers to the returning officer. First Western Australia, then South Australia, then Victoria, and then the Commonwealth adopted this option for limited classes of people.

Incrementally the rules were relaxed so that various categories of trustworthy people could “witness” these votes, and they didn’t have to do that in their offices; it could happen anywhere, for example in the voter’s home. Then, from 1918, electors themselves posted their ballot papers to the returning officer — and postal voting as we know it today was born. From 1965 the “witness” qualification was expanded so that it could be anyone on the electoral roll. Mandated secrecy had long ago ceased being a great priority.

Pre-poll voting was introduced in 1990. Voters went along to a pre-poll centre and signed a declaration that they had a good reason to vote early; the declaration and the completed ballot papers went into an envelope, to be checked and counted after election day. In 2010 this procedure was changed to resemble voting day: most ballots were no longer stuffed into envelopes but put in actual ballot box (and counted on election night). Unlike postal voting, pre-poll voting is still totally secret.

But how important is the secrecy? In countries like Australia our understanding of ballot secrecy has become somewhat distorted. We see it as a right, although most of us would be hard-pressed to explain its exact purpose. But originally it was an obligation, and its purpose was wholly practical: to eliminate vote-buying and coercion — for example of workers by employers, or tenants by landlords — and temper the rowdiness at polling places. The Australian ballot was adopted around the world because of its compulsory secrecy — you couldn’t prove to other people how you voted, so they had no incentive to hold a gun to your head or offer you money.

But back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, secret voting was often presented, even by some advocates, as a necessary evil. They agreed that everyone would vote openly and proudly in an ideal world, defending their choice if asked. Secrecy eliminated certain blights on the election process, and so, on balance, it was desirable.

These days most advanced democracies, like Australia, are long past their secrecy hang-up, and postal voting is common. In Switzerland it is the main way of voting at national elections.

But in developing countries, where vote-buying and coercion remain serious threats, postal voting is either non-existent or limited to special classes of people, such as members of the armed forces. These countries generally don’t offer pre-poll voting either: everything is done on one day, in full view of the public and observers.

And then there’s internet voting, which is frequently advocated in this country, sometimes in facile terms and often by people or companies with government tenders and dollar signs in their eyes.

New South Wales and Western Australia have dabbled in internet voting for state elections, with mixed results. It is, of course, no more secret than postal voting, but that doesn’t matter much. The possible security problems are obvious and potentially disastrous. And there is something to be said for knowing that, tucked away in a warehouse somewhere, every vote is backed up by a piece of paper containing the voter’s handwriting.

Internationally, Estonia appears to be the only country to use internet voting for national elections to a significant degree, but not without problems.

What does the future of voting in Australia look like? Politicians of various stripes complained this year about how the three-week pre-poll period inconvenienced them and their staff. And the parties are grappling with adjusting their campaigns to suit the new reality. But this isn’t about them; what matters is finding a system that works for voters and is practicable for electoral authorities but also preserves the integrity, actual and perceived, of our elections.

Candidates and parties should work around what is in citizens’ interests. (Of course, with elected MPs deciding the rules, it doesn’t necessarily work out this way.)

The other argument against encouraging pre-poll voting involves views about the civic purpose of this most egalitarian of rituals, attending a polling place. Surely it’s one of those things that bind us together as a society? But rituals come and go, and societies need to move with the times.

Even if the current parliament decreases the pre-poll voting period from three to two weeks, bureaucratic logic is pushing its continuing uptake. The Australian Electoral Commission has limited resources, and bodies like the Australian National Audit Office and the parliamentary committee on electoral matters regularly nag it to avoid wasting public money on underused polling places. The response to last month’s quiet polling day will likely be fewer election-day polling places and staff in 2022, meaning longer queues for those who do turn up then, and further incentive, at subsequent elections, to vote early, one way or another.

Gradually, across elections, more and more people will vote early. Perhaps a rejigged version of postal voting (including a legislative change to allow votes to be counted before election day and included in the Saturday evening figures) will facilitate a comeback in that category.

In the longer term, internet voting (via one’s own device, from anywhere) seems inevitable. As with postal voting, secrecy wouldn’t be guaranteed, but no one cares about that anymore, and perhaps the solution to security issues will involve further offending that core principle by making it possible, ultimately, to match people and their votes. The very first Australian ballot, devised in Victoria in 1856, had such a system: every ballot paper had a number that was put next to the voter’s name on the roll.

We could, for example, vote on our MyGov accounts, keeping it as a record in case of system failure. Of course, the more votes are registered electronically, the quicker the election count.

That other ceremony, the election night get-together to watch as the seat totals mount up, would also fade away. But Antony Green AO will probably be long retired by then. •

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