Pre-polling gains popularity, but makes life harder for politicans and parties

While there may not be too many voters in swimsuits or shorts at this year’s winter poll, increasing numbers of Australians are voting before election day. AAP/Paul Miller

Pre-polling gains popularity, but makes life harder for politicans and parties

Australians will choose their next government on July 2 and, with opinion polls showing the parties to be neck and neck, every vote will be important. But many voters will take the opportunity to cast their ballot well before this date.

The Australian electoral system has a number of ways in which people can vote in order to ensure all citizens can have their say, even if they are unable to attend a polling booth on election day.

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), which conducts federal elections, provides a number of alternatives. The most popular of these is pre-poll voting.

Pre-poll voting: who can do it?

Pre-polling is not something that can be done simply to avoid turning up to vote on election day. Citizens must satisfy one or more of the eligibility requirements set out by the AEC.

These include being more than 8km away from a polling place, an illness, religious beliefs or travelling on election day.

Other reasons that people may be allowed to vote early include work commitments or if they are outside the electorate where they are enrolled to vote on election day.

Early voting commences once the candidates have been declared and AEC has printed the ballot papers. For the upcoming federal election, pre-poll votes will begin on Tuesday, June 14.

The rise and rise of pre-poll voters

There has been a rise in the number of people voting early. The number of postal voters registered (those who register and then receive and return their ballots in the mail) rose from about 750,000 in 2007 to more than 1.3 million in 2013.

There has also been a sharp rise in the number of prepoll voters who vote at the special polling booths set up by the AEC before the election. Twenty years ago, 845,748 voters cast their ballots early. In 2013 this figure was more than 3.2 million, or about 22% of enrolled voters.

Combined, about 4.5 million citizens (of the 14.7 million enrolled) did not attend a polling booth on election day in 2013 as they had arranged to either vote by mail or had already voted early. This equates to about one in three voters across the country.

Implications of voting early

The rising number of postal voters and pre-poll voters has significant implications for parties and candidates. They must campaign earlier and stronger, especially in marginal seats (those held with a margin of less than 5%), which are crucial to deciding election outcomes.

The growing popularity of early voting contributes to the need for parties to engage in perpetual campaigning. It also stretches their resources as they have to staff early election centres for several weeks, as they would a normal booth on election day.

They can no longer rely on the bunting and other paraphernalia near the entrances of polling stations to sway undecided voters on election day either. Candidates are also faced with a smaller proportion of electors if they wait to meet and greet them as they line up to go in to vote on election day.

The convenience factor

The rising number of voters shunning polling booths on the election day, yet still participating in the democratic process, is understandable.

Changes in society, especially to working arrangements, has meant Saturdays are no longer as relaxed for many as they once may have been.

Winter elections also coincide with many sporting activities that may preclude the participants or, in the case of myriad junior leagues, their parents, from getting to their local polling booth on that particular Saturday.

While pre-poll voting is gaining popularity, there are some significant drawbacks.

A potential weakness is that voters, especially those who are not rusted-on supporters, may cast their ballot prior to all parties releasing their policies. This is problematic, as major parties often delay making big policy announcements until much closer to the election.

Indeed, it would be frustrating for a voter to hear of a policy they support or oppose after having already voted.

The rising number of pre-poll voters may also have a detrimental impact on local community groups. These often enjoy a financial windfall by holding cake stalls and sausage sizzles on election day that they then can use for local projects.

The trend from recent elections suggests a record numbers of people will vote early this year. The choices they make before the completion of the entire election campaign will go some way in deciding whether the Coalition or Labor can govern in the 45th parliament.