The informal donkey voter

Eeyore's winter onesie
“Eeyore’ in his winter onesie! Photo by Penny Davies

On Saturday, an estimated 2.724 million Australians will either not cast a vote or will vote incorrectly, either by choice or by accident. I say estimate, because it’s my estimate, drawn from official Australian Electoral Commission statistics plus sums based on donkey voter research.

The AEC says there were 15.468 million people on the electoral roll as of March 31, 2016. That’s 94% of eligible voters, which means there are 978,933 people ‘missing’ from the roll. That’s a lower number than in 2013 (1.22 million), but it could still sway a tight election either way.

The second part of the equation is the informal vote, votes which for one reason or another do not get past scrutineers because the ballot papers have been filled out incorrectly or deliberately spoiled.

In 2013, there were 739,872 informal votes or 5.92% of enrolled voters, the highest proportion since 1984 (6.34%), which coincided with the introduction of above-the-line voting in the Senate.

According to Melbourne University’s Election Watch website, the majority of informal voters vote (1) only or fail to fill in all the preference boxes. Others use a tick or a cross instead of numbers. A few write their name on the ballot box (also a no-no). Some informal voters scribble slogans or graffiti on their ballot papers.

After meeting sources in dark corners of underground car parks, I can confirm that drawing penises is a favourite, suggesting (a) the voter thinks all politicians are dicks or (b) likes drawing penises.

The AEC did an analysis of informal voting after the 2013 election. The AEC estimates that just over half of informal voters meant to vote for someone, showing a preference for one or more candidates. But more than a third were disqualified due to incomplete numbering.

One alarming trend is a steady rise in the proportion of informal voters who put blank papers in the ballot box. This rose from 16% in 1987 to 21% in 2001, peaked at 29% in 2010 and dropped to 20% in 2013.

Meanwhile in Brexit

An analysis of the elusive 34% of Brits who did not vote in the 2010 election by Votenone observed that in the 2010 General Election, the UK total of protest and ‘spoilt’ votes was around 295,000, or 1% of voters. However, 34% of registered voters (16 million) just didn’t vote. Votenone advocate these people take direct action by doing just that, ie writing ‘None’ on the ballot paper.

“There have been petitions asking for ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) on the ballot paper for many years.  However, like the demand for votes for women in the early 20th century, success doesn’t come just from asking.”

The UK system is different from ours in several ways, not the least of which is that voting is not compulsory.

Meanwhile, the uniquely Australian phenomenon, the donkey vote, continues to ignore both the carrot and the stick, despite changes to the electoral system post-1984 which should have diminished the influence of the donkey vote. The so-called donkey vote is an anomaly of the preferential voting system. It describes the voter who simply numbers the ballot sheet from the left, or top down, without discernment.

Prior to 1984, the donkey vote was crucial in some seats as candidate names were listed alphabetically and party names did not appear on ballot papers. So numbering your candidates from the left meant that Aaron Aardvark, the Independent candidate for Aarons Pass, collected more votes than he ever thought possible. Some political pundits think the donkey vote is worth as much as 2% of any contest. On that basis, 309,360 votes will be wasted on Saturday.

Mr Shiraz found a 2006 study by the Australian National University which suggests the donkey vote is 1 in 70 or 227,114 votes.

If you want a clear example of how the donkey vote can skew results, look no further than the 2005 by-election for former Labor leader Mark Latham’s seat of Werriwa. There were 16 candidates, listed randomly on the ballot paper. In this instance the donkey vote was reflected in the high vote (4.83%) for Australians Against Further Immigration, a minor party who were placed first on the ballot. (Then again, maybe people meant to vote for them).

To compel or not to compel

The other slab of humanity missing at the polls is the 4.5% or so (696,060) people who are on the roll but don’t bother. A $20 fine applies if you are enrolled but do not vote – a potential $13.92 million windfall.

Australia is one of 22 countries where voting is mandatory, yet our voter turnout has been below 96% every year since 1946. In 2013, the figure was 93.23%; in 2010 93.22% and in the year of Our Kevin it was 94.76%. Nevertheless, we have the largest voter turnout of 34 OECD countries including the US, UK and Canada. In neighbouring New Zealand, where voting is optional, the turnout has only nudged above 80% once since 2002.

But getting back to our specific problem – how to engage the 2.724 million people who are apparently disaffected, uninterested, don’t understand, are too busy mowing lawns, chainsawing storm-tossed trees or having sex on polling day or misguidedly waste their democratic right in voiceless protest.

I heard Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull on radio yesterday urging people not to vote Independent as this could cause “chaos and instability in government”. Fair go Mal (and Bill), we’ve had five different PMs in six years, yet we only voted for two of them.

Meanwhile, a record 1.16 million people had taken advantage of pre-poll voting as of last Saturday (it was 775,000 at the same point in 2013). The speculation is that the increase in pre-poll voting (you qualify if you are going to be away from your electorate on the day, are 8kms or more away from a polling booth or have religious reasons for not voting on a Saturday), is because the government, in its wisdom, picked a date during school and university holidays.

In practical terms, however, nobody is enforcing these rules; you just get asked if you are qualified to vote pre-poll and if you say yes, then in you go. Rod Smith, a professor at the University of Sydney, who specialises in political parties and elections, told the Sydney Morning Herald electoral commissions encourage early voting.

“The categories are out-of-date and it is one of those instances where lawmakers are turning a blind eye to the way the legislation is being implemented.” Smith says.

The latest poll shows the Coalition is ahead of the Opposition 51/49, although other polls suggest 50/50 on a primary vote basis. The bookies have the LNP at $1.08, Labor at 8-1 and odds of a hung parliament at 4-1.

The challenge now is for someone to come up with what language guru Professor Roly Sussex calls a ‘portmanteau’ word (blending the sounds and meanings of two others, for example motel, brunch or Brexit), to describe Australia’s 2016 poll. Here’s a couple to get you started on election night: Texit, Sexit. Let’s hope there is no need to coin a post-election term like the one now widespread in the UK: Bregret.