Am I missing something? Voting early is becoming increasingly popular, yet the politicians are thinking of cutting it back, and/or making it more difficult. I thought politicians were in the business of picking up, or at least reflecting, the public mood. But somehow, they believe they should resist this particular trend – this very strong trend that has gained the approval of more than a third of voters from across the political spectrum.
There is no logic in their disregard of the preference of an increasing number of people. It has always been the case that most people decide how they are going to vote weeks, months and even years before an election takes place. At least a third of voters are irrevocably committed to a particular party (and nowadays, not just the major ones). Polls suggest that no more than a third of voters (at most) make their decision late in the election campaign. You would think that the parties should welcome the fact that the committed voters have put themselves out of the picture by voting early, and that they can expend their energies on trying to convince those who have yet to finally decide how to vote on where they should direct their first and other preferences.
The Electoral Commission is more in tune with the voters than the major political parties. This year it has been widely advertising the availability of early voting, though under the headline, ‘CAN’T MAKE IT ON ELECTION DAY?’ It gives several reasons why this might be an option for the voter – ‘you are at work on Saturday 18 May, or will be outside the electorate where you are enrolled’. But it points out there are other reasons.
These are listed in the Electoral Act, but the Commission isn’t very concerned about strictly applying these conditions. When I voted, on the first day pre-polling was available, I wasn’t asked for a reason by the official. In some electorates people were asked, but not pressed for a reason. I doubt if anyone who turned up was denied a vote.
For those with a genuine reason for voting early, going to a polling station is a far better option that using a postal ballot. There is more information available because the major parties generally have people handing out how-to-vote flyers – though finding enough volunteers for the three weeks must be a strain on party resources and is generally beyond the capacity of smaller parties and independents. That perhaps is a genuine reason for limiting the pre-polling period and probably influenced the all-party parliamentary committee on electoral matters to recommend reducing the period from three weeks to two. On the other hand many voters appreciate not having to run the gauntlet to get into the voting booth.
What are the evil consequences of this early voting phenomenon that have alarmed our political leaders or their apparatchiks? It seems they don’t like the idea that early voters might miss some terribly important event close to election day that might change their vote – a ‘gotcha’ question, a false answer, a stupid, or honest, tweet. Certainly there can be such events, as the Labor party demonstrated when it crashed during the last week of the March 23 NSW election.
In federal elections advertising seems to reach a peak in the last few weeks, but party policies have been well and truly aired long before then. The only reason the parties officially launch their campaigns with only a week or two to go before the official polling date is so that they can squeeze more electoral resources out of the public purse by doing so. Surely it couldn’t get worse than the Prime Minister launching the official Liberal campaign just a week out from the official election day, after 2.2 million people have voted. Two million voters ignored? How bizarre. But of course, those voters already knew what the Liberals were promising and what their campaign was about. Campaign launches have degenerated into campaign closing ceremonies, though no-one would dare call them that. Besides, politicians really believe they can and do influence voters up to the very minute that they mark their ballot. And they cannot afford to let anyone (and not least their colleagues) believe that they have stopped trying before the last votes (in WA) have been cast.
If it is correct that the people who vote early are those who always make up their minds well before election day, and are not influenced by advertising or events (such as leaders’ debates) then there is no reason to think the parties need to adapt their current campaigning tactics to this new phenomenon. The parties will still be aiming at the same voters they always have – those people who aren’t particularly interested in politics and government. But they will focus more clearly on them.
David Solomon is a retired journalist and author.