The mechanics of elections to suit the major parties

Dec 23, 2020

The Commonwealth Parliament has a very long-standing practice of requiring its Joint Committee on Electoral Matters to conduct a post-mortem after every federal election – not about how it was won or lost (that has already been done in the media and elsewhere) but how the electoral mechanics worked and what changes might be made to make it better for the major political parties in future elections – independents don’t get a look in on these reviews.

Credit – Unsplash

It is rarely responsible for major contributions to our democracy such as the abolition of gerrymanders and the requirement that electorates should not offend the principle of one vote one value. Or the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18. Or giving the vote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. These all emerged through election campaign promises of political parties – mainly Labor.

Although anyone can make a submission for the committee’s consideration, the recommendations tend to reflect the concerns and preferences of the party organisations, rather than of ordinary voters.

This year’s effort, released earlier this month, is no exception.

One of the most notable aspects of last year’s federal election was the substantial increase in pre-poll voting – over the past three elections, from 14 per cent to 19 per cent, to 28 per cent. And this was 2019 – before Covid.

The political parties don’t like it, and they want to reduce it as much as they can. After the 2016 election, the committee recommended that the pre-poll voting period be reduced from 3 weeks to 2. It repeated that recommendation this year.

 The committee accepted that some voters liked early voting because it was ‘convenient’. But that, in the eyes of the political parties, is irrelevant. This is because early voting ‘adversely affected those who contested the election because of the challenge of finding volunteers to canvass for support at each location’.

Also, election campaigns are organised to peak (in terms of promises and attacks on opponents’ policies) close to election day. That’s all wasted if people have already voted.

In the last election, more than 662,000 people voted in the first week of the campaign – the week the committee wanted to be scrapped for early voting.

 The committee also wants the Electoral Commission (AEC) to strictly observe the limits that the Electoral Act sets on early voting – a voter is supposed to have a reason stipulated in the Act before being allowed to vote early. It used to be the case that the official would ask for your reason before giving you a ballot paper, but at the last election (in my experience) they didn’t bother. If you turned up you got a ballot paper.

 My guess is that relatively few of the six million early voters at the last election would have had the required legislative excuse. Imagine how they would have felt (and reacted) if they had been turned away.

Another way to vote early is by applying for a postal vote. Political parties have given themselves special privileges in this area (there are many others, including access to the electoral rolls). It is political parties that provide you with an invitation to have a postal ballot – but when you respond they access and file away your information before passing on your request to the AEC. Very handy for them, though it builds delay into the system which is already creaking, in part because Australia Post is not paid to expedite election mail.

In the much-criticised (deservedly) US election systems, many states actually mail out postal vote applications to all voters. There’s no way our political parties would permit that.

And while on the US system, here as there conservative political parties continue to push for tougher voter identification. The Liberal-National Party majority on the Parliamentary Committee again recommended photo-ID or similar to be produced by voters. Here, as in the US, it is thought that would adversely affect voters supporting their opponents.

Australia is one of only a small number of countries that uses preferential voting. There is no argument here for its abolition – rather the issue is whether it should be optional for the voter. (Where it is not optional, and the voter indicates a preference for only one candidate the vote is discarded as informal.) The main virtue of optional preferential is that the number of informal votes is reduced. However, for political parties, the question is whether they or their opponents benefit most from getting preferences from independents or minor parties. The attitude of the parties to this issue varies over time – this year the government favours optional preferential.

The Committee deferred (for a later report) a review of electoral funding and disclosure. This is another area where reform depends solely on whether the governing political party sees an electoral advantage for itself in capping or limiting donations, requiring their disclosure or the current government’s latest dodge, increasing tax deductions for donations.

Real reform in the area of donations, disclosure and expenditure caps is occurring at a state level, but it will only happen federally with a change of government. Even then, it is unlikely to be a priority.

A footnote, showing how carefully the AEC has to tread when dealing with the issue that most concerns politicians – their election.

It concerns the way the major political parties have dealt themselves into the provision of the forms voters need to get a postal vote:

The AEC acknowledges that this is a sensitive area for Parliament. Over many years, political parties, members and candidates have expressed very forthright opinions on this matter, and have reiterated a forthright view that this is a policy matter for Parliament. Whilst acknowledging and understanding the view of Parliament, third party involvement in the process through dispatch of unsolicited postal vote applications to large numbers of electors excites significant adverse commentary in the community, can create unnecessary confusion and delays in voters receiving their postal vote materials and could therefore lead to disenfranchisement.

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