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.


Press vote now

Combo Waterhole, source of inspiration for Banjo Paterson’s poem. Photo by Laurel Wilson.

Queenslanders who voted ‘Yes’ for four-year fixed parliamentary terms last weekend may live to rue the day. The people have spoken, although there is a vigorous debate about how well-informed they were at the time they voted. And while vote counting is not complete, critics are saying 53.1% for the affirmative is a poor result, considering it had bipartisan support.

The people certainly spoke back in 1967 when a referendum was held to count Aborigines as part of the human population − 90.77% of registered voters said ‘Yes’. (Voters were also asked to approve an increase in the number of members of the House of Representatives without increasing the number of Senators. That one got voted down.)

Sometimes politicians do that – sneak an extra question in which is arguably the real reason they are having a referendum in the first place. But the people aren’t stupid, are they?

There have been referendums held to consider questions less vital to human rights and equality than whether or not Aborigines should count as people. For example, in 1968 Tasmanians were asked if they wanted a casino in Hobart and (only) 53% said ‘yes’. In 1975 West Australians were asked to vote for or against daylight saving (No) and again in 1984 (also No). In 1992, after a three-year trial, Queenslanders were also asked to vote on this somewhat vexed question  and the ‘No’ vote got up then too.

Didn’t we get asked this question 25 years ago?

In 1991 voters were asked if they wanted the Queensland Parliament to have four-year terms. The proposal was narrowly defeated, with 51.1% voting against and 48.9% in favour.

University of Queensland Professor of Law Graeme Orr told FOMM one of the travesties of this year’s referendum was the ‘bundling’ of two separate issues, ie the question of whether to have ‘fixed terms’, but also whether to have four year terms instead of the current three. According to Professor Orr, the government of the day could have legislated for fixed (three year) terms, without the need for a referendum, as “the three-year term was entrenched in the old Constitution”.

Prof Orr said it was remarkable that this referendum could only attract a 53% ‘Yes’ vote, given both major parties backed it, there was paid advertising, high-profile support, and no organized ‘No’ case.

“It shows how less trusting people are today of the two big but dwindling parties.”

Prof Orr added that the last referenda which had bi-partisan support (in 1977 – to allow Territories to vote in referenda) attracted a 77.7% ‘Yes’ vote.

Saturday’s poll was the third ‘Yes’ result from eight Queensland referendums held since 1899. The result also defied a national trend, with only 18% of referendums passed since Federation. An astute local political observer remarked that the referendums which are won usually have bi-partisan support.

Federal referendums are much harder to win because not only do you need a majority, but at least four of the six states must also say ‘Yes’.

Only eight of the 44 referendum questions posed to the Federal electorate (38 of them were held prior to and including 1977), have been approved. Canberra has clearly lost its appetite for referendums as there have been only eight held since 1984, the last one being the failed bid (at a cost of $66.82 million) to turn Australia into a Republic in 1999.

A conscience vote would be cheaper

While a referendum in Australia is always a proposal to amend the Constitution, a plebiscite is a non-binding vote used to determine the electorate’s position regarding an important public question. So while Australia has not had a referendum since 1999, a plebiscite vote on same-sex marriage is very likely in the next year or two, unless the electorate cracks up about the mooted cost ($158.4 million), although accountants PwC distributed a press release which stated that lost productivity could push it out to $525 million.

While some political interests get mileage from playing up the unseemly cost of democracy, we calculated the per voter cost of Saturday’s exercise at just $3.73. The budget for Queensland’s 2016 referendum ($11.5 million) was relatively modest as it was held concurrently with local government elections. The State Government said this strategy saved Queensland taxpayers $5.1 million. FOMM asked Electoral Commission Queensland to identify the biggest single expense in holding a referendum. Forty percent of the budget ($4.60 million) went on postage, which tends to support the e-voting alternative discussed below.

Elections and referendums chew through serious money. Data drawn from the Australian Electoral Commission shows the five Federal elections held since 2000 cost $745+ million while another $8.26 million was spent on 10 by-elections and another $21 million on a half senate election in WA. So if PM Malcolm Turnbull makes good his threat and goes to a double dissolution in July, democracy in Australia will have cost us close to $1 billion in just 17 years.

E-voting – a good question for a referendum?

Surely in 2016 we could have our democratic say on things and spend less money? After all, hundreds of thousands of Centrelink, Medicare and ATO clients can log on to MyGov and carry out simple administrative tasks on their own behalf.

We’d only need to raise the bar a little to allow voters to vote from home, using dedicated WIFI gadgets, smart cards and ASIO-level backroom security.

Hackers, electoral fraud, I hear you say? How could it be more full of loopholes than the current system?

The long-term savings seem obvious. An online scheme would involve a large up-front cost manufacturing terminals and cards and setting up secure data management. They would also have to be installed in public libraries to ensure people who do not own a computer or a smart phone still get a vote. Special arrangements would also be needed for those who are too remote to have access to such technology.

But once the scheme was operating, it could be utilised not only for Federal elections, by-elections and referendums, but by all states and territories and local governments. The accumulated savings over, say a fixed, four-year term would be significant. This is not some random FOMM fantasy either – check out the e-voting experiences of the State of Victoria and countries like Switzerland and Estonia.

Girt by dire songs

An online system would need a trial run, preferably using a non-critical issue. May I suggest we revisit the 1977 plebiscite that asked Australians to choose one of four songs as the National Anthem? I say this on the basis that people tire of old songs that get played to death, particularly if they were sappy songs in the first place: I Go to Rio, Don’t Cry for Me Argentina and Living Next Door to Alice were all big hits in 1977.

First we’d need a national songwriting competition to come up with a short-list of songs, including one written by a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island descent. Historically, 90% of the people should agree with this. You might say we’ve got plenty of existing songs to choose from – From Little Things, This is Australia, Land Down Under, True Blue, Great Southern Land.

Dame Edna Everage’s duet with Loudon Wainwright III singing C. Carson Parks’ Somethin’ Stupid is not a contender for our national song circa 2017.

I just thought since it’s a public holiday and you have time to spare, and given that this is such a turgid subject and what’s another 100 words anyway, you should know such a thing exists. Happily no video of that performance could be found. But there is this.

Should we include the runner-up from the 1977 plebiscite? Can anyone remember the names of the three songs which were not Advance Australia Fair? See if you can remember without using your favourite search engine. I realise that anyone under 40 will struggle with this question, so I’ll give you another subtle clue – one song relates to a bloke camped by a billabong in the shade of a Coolabah tree; he’s sitting, watching, waiting till his billy boils.