There has been an increase in the number and proportion of declaration votes cast at recent Commonwealth elections. Declaration votes, which include absent, pre-poll, postal and provisional votes, require the elector to sign a declaration before the vote can be accepted. The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 specifies the requirements that have to be satisfied for a declaration vote application to be accepted. The Act also specifies the detailed procedures for administering declaration votes.
At the 2001 Commonwealth election, declaration votes represented 15.9 percent of the votes counted, a substantial increase over the 1993 election. The most dramatic increase has occurred in postal and pre-poll votes, giving rise to suggestions that electors are using the current declaration voting arrangements as a form of convenience voting, rather than for their original intention.
Changes in electoral legislation over the last twenty years have expanded the grounds for declaration votes. Not surprisingly this has led to an increase in the number of declaration votes cast. While declaration voting per se is not a matter of great concern, particularly if the alternative is not voting at all then the use of declaration voting as a convenience can be viewed as acceptable. However, the impact this increase may have on the electoral system and the administration of that system, does raise concerns.
The increase in declaration voting has a number of impacts on the electoral process. The result of elections can be delayed and the cost of administering elections can increase. The increased usage of postal voting may also have implications for the secrecy of the ballot.
This paper presents an analysis of declaration voting at recent Commonwealth elections. The paper is in part a response to a recommendation of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) and meets an undertaking given to the Committee by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) in a submission to the Committee's inquiry into the conduct of the 2001 election.
In its report on the conduct of the 1998 election the JSCEM expressed concern that there was an increase in declaration voting and that voters may be viewing declaration voting as a more convenient form of voting than attending a polling booth on election day.
This paper examines trends in declaration voting at recent Commonwealth elections, provides a detailed description of declaration voting and the voting process and looks for reasons to explain recent changes in the pattern of declaration voting.
Declaration votes are so called because they require the voter to sign a declaration before the vote can be accepted. The vote is not admitted to the count until the enrolment details of the applicant are verified. Declaration votes include, Absent votes, Postal votes, Pre-Poll votes and Provisional votes. Votes cast at a polling place on polling day where a declaration is not required are referred to as Ordinary votes, and represent the vast majority of votes cast at any electoral event. Absent votes are votes cast by an elector out of their enrolled division but still within their home state or territory on polling day. Pre-Poll or Postal votes are votes cast before polling day at a pre-poll voting centre or by post. Provisional votes are votes cast at a polling place where the elector's name cannot be found on the roll, or where the elector's name has been marked off the roll as having voted, or where the elector has silent enrolment. A detailed description of each type of declaration vote is provided later in this paper.
Declaration votes are an important part of the democratic process as they increase the accessibility of the electoral process to electors who may otherwise have difficulty in meeting their obligation to vote. Since 1924 voting has been compulsory at Commonwealth elections. In order to ameliorate the effects of compulsory voting and to increase the accessibility of the electoral process generally there has been a steady expansion in the type and availability of declaration votes since that time.
The very first Commonwealth electoral legislation, enacted in 1902, introduced forms of absent and postal voting in addition to ordinary voting at the designated polling place. Absent voting allowed electors to vote at any polling place in their division or, if regulations permitted, within their state. Postal voting was available to electors more than eight kilometres from a polling place on polling day, or who were prevented from voting by serious illness, or infirmity, or a woman approaching childbirth. Postal voting was abolished in 1911 but reinstated in 1918. Absent and Postal voting then became an accepted part of the electoral landscape. Provisional votes (previously referred to as Section votes) were introduced in 1918. Pre-Poll voting was introduced in 1984 when the Commonwealth Electoral Act was extensively rewritten. Over the course of the past one hundred years the grounds for allowing declaration voting have been broadened to encompass religious grounds, carer responsibilities and electors overseas. A chronology of Commonwealth electoral legislative provisions in respect of declaration voting is at Appendix 1.
The legislative provisions governing declaration votes are contained in the following parts of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918: Part XV of the Act for postal voting, Part XVA for pre-poll voting, and Part XVI for absent and provisional voting. Schedule 2 of the Act provides the grounds for which an elector may apply for a postal or pre-poll vote. The relevant parts of the Act governing declaration votes are reproduced as Appendix 2. The following provides a summary of the relevant provisions.
An elector who is away from the division for which they are enrolled but still within the same state or territory may, upon making a declaration, vote on polling day as an absent voter at any polling place in other divisions in that state or territory.
The following procedures apply to absent voting:
An elector who will be unable to attend a polling place on polling day may apply for a postal vote. The following conditions apply to the application of a postal vote:
An application for a postal vote must contain a signed declaration by the elector that they are entitled to apply for a postal vote. Envelopes containing postal votes must be postmarked on or before polling day and can be received by the AEC up to 13 days after polling day.
Certain classes of electors can apply for registration as general postal voters. An application can be made on the following grounds: living more than 20 kilometres from a polling place, serious illness or infirmity, caring for a person who is seriously ill or infirm, detained in custody, severe physical incapacity, silent elector, or religious beliefs or membership of a religious order. Electors who are registered as general postal voters are automatically sent ballot papers by the AEC.
An elector may apply for a pre-poll vote on any of the grounds applicable for a postal vote. An application for a pre-poll vote must be made in person by the elector, at a Divisional office of the AEC or at a pre-poll voting centre before polling day, except in the case of interstate travellers who can vote at an interstate polling centre on polling day.
An application for a pre-poll vote must contain a signed declaration by the elector that they are entitled to apply for a pre-poll vote. Envelopes containing pre-poll votes are placed in the ballot box at the pre-poll voting location.
An elector may be issued with a provisional vote if:
The provisional voter must answer the questions put to any ordinary voter (except the silent elector is not required to publicly disclose their address) and must sign a declaration on an envelope provided. The ballot papers are then sealed in the envelope and the envelope placed in the ballot box.
The rules governing the admission of declaration votes into the count are set out in Schedule 3 of the Act (reproduced at Appendix 2). The Schedule is quite specific in the requirements that have to be satisfied for a declaration vote to be accepted and admitted into the count. As such a number of declaration votes are rejected at each election. At the 2001 election, 179 071 declaration votes were rejected (8.4 percent of the number of declaration votes received). By far the most common reason for rejection was the fact that the voter was not enrolled. Other categories of rejection include – the declaration vote not being signed, not being witnessed, voted late, received late or declared for the wrong division.
1 Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM), The 1998 Election: Report on the Inquiry into the 1998 Federal Election and matters related thereto, Parliament of Australia, June 2000, Recommendation 20, p.48
2 Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), Australian Electoral Commission Submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters the Conduct of the 2001 Federal Election, Australian Electoral Commission, Canberra, July 2002, Para. 6.1.4
3 JSCEM 2000