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.


Greens coalition bridge too far

Greens metaphor: Oresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark
Öresund Bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö photo by Fab-o-Paris

You may have missed my Facebook link to the story from the Guardian Weekly about the alliance between New Zealand’s Labour Party and the (Kiwi) Greens. The two parties drafted a one-page agreement with one specific aim – to defeat the Nationals and Prime Minister John Keys at the 2017 election. There is no suggestion of a coalition beyond that point, just a muscling-up to push the incumbents from office.

This seems like a fond hope. On the 2014 election result, Labour/Green would still be 730,389 votes short. Still, the NZ Greens hold more sway in the New Zealand parliament, holding 14 seats and taking 10.70% of the popular vote in 2014.

My one line suggestion on Facebook (“memo Bill and Richard”) apparently fell like pearls into the Facebook pigsty. Only one person ‘liked’ it. (This aligns with research that suggests few Facebook browsers click through and read to the end of a lengthy article).

Last month, Australian Greens Treasury spokesman and the only Green MP Adam Bandt said on Q&A that the Greens were open to forming a coalition with Labor. But Labor Opposition leader Bill Shorten said Bandt was “dreaming”.

“Labor will fight this election to form its own government and to form a government in our own right. Labor will not be going into coalition with any party,” he told ABC North Queensland.

The Australian Greens remain incensed about Labor’s ads which suggested they were doing a preference deal with the Liberals. The Greens have since said they will put Labor ahead of Liberal on how to vote cards in all but 11 seats, leaving the latter ‘open’. PM Malcolm Turnbull told ABC Online last Sunday the Liberal Party will preference the Greens last, or behind Labor. “This is a call that I have made in the national interest,” the PM said.

Labor confirmed it will direct its preferences to the Greens in the lower house. There are reports of Labor promoting the Liberal Party over the Nationals in the South Australian seats of Murray, O’Connor and Durack. The Sydney Morning Herald also reported this week that Labor is considering a deal with Nick Xenophon that could see the independent senator pick up three Liberal seats in South Australia.

But is it, as Ben Eltham suggests, trivial to focus on preference deals (which are after all just recommendation on how-to-vote cards), instead of policies?

Conor Little, research associate at Keele University wrote in The Conversation about the difficulties facing Green parties in coalition:

 “Large centre-left parties often fish from the same pool of voters and compete on similar issues as the Greens. As a result, the Green parties are very often seen as a threat to mainstream centre-left parties and vice versa.’’

On any level, Green politics is less influential in Australia that in many European countries and, as we have stated, New Zealand.

The Greens served as the junior coalition partner in Germany’s parliament in 1998 and 2005 and came fourth at the last election (beaten out of third by one seat). In the UK, the Greens polled more than 1 million votes, holding its one seat (Brighton) in the British parliament.

Nordic noir (or verte)

In Denmark, the Red-Green Alliance polled 7.8% of the vote and holds two seats in Opposition. Across the Oresund Bridge in Sweden, the Greens held 6.9% of the vote and 25 seats at the 2014 election, the fourth-largest party in the Swedish parliament.

I mention these two countries in particular as we have become armchair experts on things Nordic, watching acclaimed TV series including The Bridge, Borgen, Wallander and Unit One. So we now recognise useful Swedish words like ya (yes), nej (no), öl (beer) and kön (sex).

The word ‘Green’ can mean different things in global politics. Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance is the most socialist party in Denmark, advocating socialist democracy not just for Denmark but internationally.

Finland’s Green League has 15 seats in parliament after the 2015 election, having quit the coalition twice over approval for a Russian-backed nuclear power plant. Statistics Finland says the party won five more seats in 2015, its vote increasing by 1.3% to 8.5%. The League usually sits in the centre of the political spectrum, criticising both socialism and the free market. But it is also anti-nuclear, anti-conscription, pro same-sex marriage and takes the high moral ground that rich countries must lead others in mitigating the impact of climate change.

So it seems that as the various shades of Green in the world have gathered support and joined coalitions, some have stepped back from the more absolutist positions of their founders.

Conor Little says being in coalition is difficult for any small party. “Co-operating with (or in) a government is a balancing act and no matter how much they achieve, parties with only a few seats usually need to compromise on much of their platform.”

Sometimes the need to assert their identity leads these parties to end their coalition early, as the Australian Greens did, ending its alliance with Labor in February 2013. Likewise Finland’s Greens walked out in 2002 and 2014 over a nuclear power plant proposal. In 2002 the New Zealand Greens rebelled over the release of genetically modified organisms. As Little says, these moves tend to attract more support for Green parties.

Meanwhile, with just 16 days left until Australians vote, what is it about the Australian Greens that makes the LNP believe the party is a threat to the national interest? Perhaps this:

The Greens are the only party that understands that the economy must work for the benefit of society and not the other way around. We have a progressive plan where tax reform starts at the top by removing unfair tax breaks and wasteful subsidies for polluting industries. Not only will this help address the structural deficit of the budget, but it will force money away from tax sheltered locations like superannuation, housing and mining and into productive areas that will set us up for the new economy and more equitable wealth distribution.”

The party polled 8.6% of the primary vote in 2013, yet because of our preferential voting system, the Greens have only one voice in Parliament, although they have 10 seats in the Senate. In New Zealand, with a first-past-the-post voting system, the Greens have 14 seats in Parliament. In Finland, the Greens hold 15 seats with just 8.5% of the vote.

The Australian media rarely portrays the Greens in a positive light. In one transparent example, a page one article in The Australian in April 2015 argued that only the “godless and rich” voted Green. An analysis of seats in the 2015 NSW election by Mark Coultan concluded that atheists and agnostics were more likely to vote Green, as were the wealthy.

Coultan said the primary Green vote averaged 17% in the top 10 electorates ranked by proportion of households with income of $3,000 a week or more (based on 2011 Census). In the top 10 electorates with the lowest proportion of rich families, the primary Green vote was 10.9%. Coultan added that this figure was inflated by outstanding Green results in the anti-CSG electorates of Tweed and Lismore.

Electorates ranked one and two for the number of atheists, agnostics, humanists, rationalists and people with no religion (Balmain and Newtown), were among the three seats picked up by the Greens in NSW.

So how relevant is this report and did it really warrant page one treatment? Judge for yourselves (i) the original yarn and (ii) a lengthy dissection by blogger Dr Kevin Bonham.

Having said that, we’re off to prune the roses before the fickle finger of climate change brings on unwanted early buds.