My, you do have some strong opinions about the electoral system don’t you?
1295 voters participated in the electoral system questions. This block was a little longer than we normally prefer, so thank you for all your very detailed responses. Apologies to those who were a little frustrated we did not specifically get into the Senate voting – but we already know from consistent comments throughout the Project that confusion and misinformation about the Senate voting system is very high, and at the same time, interest in the Senate is generally low, so felt it best not to try and wedge in another 5 minutes of questions on a topic that may cause people to drop out.
From this survey it was again confirmed that many do not understand much of the electoral system, especially how preferences work, still believe the old preference deals where the party decides where your votes go are in place, and want above the line voting and/or preference voting banned on that basis. I don’t normally like to ‘correct’ participants as their opinions are their opinions and are always valid whatever they are, but for this particular subject, in the interest of public service, I will try and do a little fact checking/myth busting along the way.
General feeling about voting
We began by asking how voting makes people feel, which we asked two ways, firstly how it makes you feel in your own words, and then to choose from a list how you think and feel about voting. We haven’t had a word cloud in a while have we…
Most of the ‘none of the above’ answers expressed some sense of frustration with the system, or feeling conflicted about it. For example, they know voting should be important, but they don’t feel their vote is valued because they’re in a safe seat, or they currently don’t have confidence in the system. Others spoke of choosing a representative which probably should have been in the pick list in hindsight.
While many used the very first opportunity to comment to jump straight into their strong feelings about compulsory or preferential voting, a notable theme in the first batch of comments was that politicians only pay attention to the people when they need our vote, promise all kinds of things, and then just do whatever they want to do. Others took the opportunity to say that we are lucky to be able to vote.
Compulsory voting is definitely a polarised issue. While the vast majority of respondents support compulsory voting, those that oppose it do so with vigour, as forthright in their opinions as the strongest advocates for the system. There are some in the middle, most of the comments along those lines indicating a recent change of heart.
I used to support compulsory voting but now I’m not sure. If people are educated and understand what is going on then sure compulsory voting… go of gold but… I’m noticing more and more that people with little or no political education are being forced to vote so they go for the easiest story. Tick the easiest box. That is not how things should go. My experience of talking with folks when are not politically savvy is that they simply do not care. All they want is to make it to the next pay.
61 year old female voter
Misleading premise. There is no compulsory voting in Australia. What is compulsory is attendance at a polling station. I have attended and submitted a blank voting paper many times.
59 year old male voter
Yet others believed that it is compulsory to mark the ballot paper.
Whilst I feel that it should be compulsory for people to attend a polling place on election day, it feels odd that it is an offence to not mark a ballot paper. I feel that this should be removed from the Electoral Act in the hope that people attend a polling place on election day and still cast their vote.
34 year old male voter
FACT CHECK: Neither of these are quite correct. We do have compulsory voting in Australia. You must attend a polling booth AND have your name marked off, take a ballot paper, retire to a voting booth, mark the ballot paper, fold it as to conceal your vote, and put it in the ballot box. (See the AEC electoral backgrounder on compulsory voting.) Voting informally (submitting a blank ballot paper, or any of the other things that constitute an informal ballot) is still voting.
It is not an offence not to mark a ballot paper, as it is not possible to know if a voter has or hasn’t marked a ballot paper – and the Australian Government argued to the UN that Australian voters are not compelled to vote as they have the option to vote informal, stated as the reason why our system of compulsory voting does not violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (see paragraph 4.3 at the bottom of page 5 here.)
The force and effect of many court cases on this issue is that it is an offence not to attend a voting booth, and it is an offence to attend a voting booth, have your name marked off and walk out – you must take a ballot paper, and you must fold that ballot paper up und put it in the box – you can’t walk out with it. Either of those things are not voting, and for that you will (most likely) get fined. But it is not an offence to vote informal.
I don’t think punishing non-voters helps. They already resent the voting process. They need to feel like their voice is important.
45 year old male voter
Support for the fine is far less strident than support for compulsory voting, with concern expressed around keeping it low, whether people can afford it, or whether it will just make them hate the system. The figures for support for compulsory voting were mirrored by the figures for those who will still vote if voting wasn’t compulsory. Most people.
Most of the ‘Others’ for this question were those who said they would vote in federal and state elections but not local, thus have been relabeled, and the remaining 0.2% were recoded. Notably a number of those who said they wouldn’t vote in local government elections were in those areas where voting in local government elections is already not compulsory.
There are certainly some fired up opinions on preferences, but it isn’t a polarised issue like compulsory voting; it’s more an issue with some definite geographic trends. We started by asking which people would prefer in the House of Representatives – numbering all the boxes, just one, or one with the option to number more if you wanted to. Those states that had optional preferential voting at the state level comprised the majority of participants that wanted optional preferential voting at the federal level too.
We didn’t use the terms compulsory preferential, first past the post or optional preferential in the question, but many participants did… interestingly using the ‘other’ to do so… which always leads my spidey senses to wonder if they’re just trying to demonstrate their knowledge on the subject, or are reciting what they’ve been told by someone and can’t translate the technicate terms into the common language explanation given.
There was an element of what’s called ‘social desirability bias‘ on display in both these questions, with people clearly not that confident but trying to appear knowledgeable about the electoral system (as noted above with people using the technical terms for the voting systems, and in the second, some people answered questions by saying they have a political science degree or that they have worked as a scrutineer without actually answering the question…). To try and combat the social desirability bias in finding out about whether people understood compulsory preferential voting, the question was deliberately framed with the instruction of ‘could you explain it to someone else’, as understanding it yourself is a different thing to explaining it to others, but I still think 75% is high.
A few examples to demonstrate the conundrum here – they seem to understand what is required of them, but not what happens next… which is never, ever, the voter’s fault. Focus groups or more lengthy in-person interviews may be better for this topic given the level of misinformation.
You vote for someone, they don’t get enough votes to win, so the vote goes to their preferred party. If it’s more complicated than that it shouldn’t be.
33 year old male voter
Probably but at times it is hard to find the information about how particular candidates will flow their preferences. The rise if the lunatic fringe parties and their use of the preferential system worries me.
67 year old female voter
The preference deals are a concern and difficult to explain to a new voter. One can only encourage people to ‘Number every box’.
52 year old female voter
FACT CHECK: You decide where your vote goes, no one else. Not the party, not the candidate you vote 1 for. If the candidate you voted 1 for doesn’t get enough votes, your vote goes to whoever YOU put the number 2 next to, then 3, then 4 and so on.
The ‘preference deals’ – the group tickets – were abolished for the Senate for the 2016 federal election, and have never existed for the House. There are no preference whisperer mass deals in federal elections anymore. (They do still exist in some state elections, but you can always vote below the line to veto the party’s preferences, as we saw many people do recently in Victoria.)
What are referred to somewhat misleadingly as ‘preference deals’ now are agreements between parties as to where to put each other on their how to vote cards, and have no force and effect on the actual vote, other than when individual voters voluntarily follow a how to vote card. A how to vote card is nothing but marketing – a pretty flyer to be help you find their candidate on the ballot paper, with a suggested order to complete the rest of the ballot paper so you don’t have to think and the vote will be valid.
The greatest desire expressed around preferences was for education. People don’t get it, but they want to. And they blame the AEC. They want it taught in school, but they also want it explained each and every election, with many making suggestions such as having information sent out to every voter on how the system works (not just that there is an election coming up) and for accessible content, such as videos online that are easy to understand and share on social media. How to vote, how votes are counted, how preferencing works, the lot.
The electoral roll and Direct Enrolment
Speaking of things that the AEC has not communicated well… given it has been happening since 2013, a stunning number of Australians were unaware the Australian Electoral Commission was using data matching with the ATO, Centrelink and other government agencies to automatically put people on the electoral roll. While support for compulsory enrolment was high, like compulsory voting, support for Direct Enrolment was lower largely due to concerns about consent, about people that have legitimate reasons for not being on the roll, and the welfare of people that would not want their details on an accessible list such as domestic violence victims in hiding from an abusive ex.
It’s a bit creepy. But I think it’s ok.
44 year old female voter
They enrolled me automatically. I don’t want to vote. It’s not fair.
27 year old female voter
There are clearly problems with Direct Enrolment, with two different stories from different parts of the country about moving temporarily and the AEC Direct Enrolled them at the temporary address without their knowledge (it seems Centrelink may be the problem agency here, with ‘temporary addresses’ being sent through to the AEC as permanent address changes). Another story told of a FIFO worker who lives and works in two different states and keeps getting their enrolment automatically changed to one or the other. Another who had never enrolled to vote bought an investment property, and was automatically enrolled to vote at the investment property – over 2000kms from where they lived.
Not all comments were negative. Some described it as ‘handy’, or ‘sensible’… and indeed it might be for some, but none of our respondents who identified themselves as having been Direct Enrolled made positive comments about the experience.
Concerns were also raised about the difficulty of getting someone off the roll when they either shouldn’t have been put there in the first place, as in the case of a significantly intellectually disabled young woman, or had succumbed to dementia and was no longer able to comprehend what was going enough to vote.
We asked a couple of questions about party registration and public electoral funding. The first was about whether 500 members was a reasonable hurdle to register a party federally.
No majority consensus here, but a number of the concerns and points are neatly encapsulated in this one quote:
I think in general 500 is too few and there are too many political (micro) parties. But doubling it to 1000, for example,could have ramifications for local/regional interest groups. I don’t think the Northern Tasmania Party or the Torres Strait Islander Party should be forced to remain unregistered by guidelines targeted at the Royal Family Are Lizards Party. Perhaps there should be a range of thresholds that apply, e.g. 2500 Australia wide, OR 1000 people in a single state, or 500 people in a single constituency. At state level the figure night need to be expressed as a percentage to take into account different state populations.
22 year old male voter
A percentage of the population that would then naturally increase, as well as figures as high as 5000 were suggested as more reasonable measures, often accompanied with complaints that there were too many parties on the ballot, but at the same time people don’t want to make it too hard for parties to get a start.
Thoughts about electoral funding were equally conflicted, although many linked this directly with donations – supporting funding but wanting donations banned or capped.
There is a majority support here, although many said they didn’t know enough about this issue, or didn’t think about this issue. Money in politics does raise the anxiety levels, with limits, transparency, declarations, caps all frequent among the comments.
This is a hard one, I support funding for smaller candidates as I feel it’s important for any one to put themselves up for election and some people wouldn’t be able to afford it. I don’t believe the major parties should be paid.
54 year old female voter
I’d support only adequate funding from AEC and keeping private donors out of the electoral process.
45 year old female voter
Finally we asked what changes people would like to see to the electoral system. Many people made suggestions, and most were unique. These are some of the more common:
- Ending compulsory voting.
- Introducing electronic voting, with a number of NSW residents referencing the iVote system by name.
- Changing preferential voting to an optional preferential system with suggestions ranging from voting for a minimum of one candidate, or a minimum of three candidates, or allowing optional preferential when ballots are ‘too long’ or ‘unreasonable’.
- Ending preference deals and how to vote cards.
- Giving the AEC ‘teeth’, giving them the power to disqualify candidates and/or requiring them to vet candidates (a reaction to the S44 issues obviously).
- More education and information about the system and candidates.
- Setting a minimum number of first preference votes for a candidate to be elected.
- Wanting to ban people from switching parties once in parliament, requiring them to quit and be re-elected instead.