In 1983 Commonwealth electoral legislation was substantially rewritten. The 1983 legislation, together with subsequent legislative amendments, have expanded the scope of declaration voting and have allowed the introduction of a number of practices that have directly lead to the increase in declaration voting in the last twenty years. These changes to legislation, practices and other possible reasons for the increase in declaration voting are discussed below.
Pre-poll voting, in the form of an oral application postal vote, was first introduced for the 1984 election. In 1990 the Act was amended to recognise pre-poll voting in its current form. Since its introduction there has been a steady increase in the number of electors applying for and casting pre-poll votes. From the electors point of view pre-poll voting is an easy and simple way of casting a non-ordinary vote. The ease of application and simplicity of the voting process for pre-poll voting have undoubtedly contributed to the increase in pre-poll voting. Pre-poll votes can be cast at every Divisional Office of the AEC and at a number of specially established pre-poll voting centres. At the 2001 election there were 306 pre-poll voting centres established.
To cast a pre-poll vote the elector has to attend at a Divisional Office or pre-poll voting centre at the appropriate time and request a pre-poll vote. Pre-poll votes can be applied for between the second day after the day on which nominations are declared (to allow time for the printing of ballot papers) and before the close of polling. The elector must specify the division they are enrolled in but does not have to state the grounds under which they are applying for a pre-poll vote. The elector is then handed the pre-poll voting material, which consists of a pre-poll vote certificate and a ballot paper or papers. The elector signs the pre-poll certificate in front of the Issuing Officer, completes the ballot paper and returns the certificate and ballot papers to the Issuing Officer who places the material in an envelope and puts the sealed envelope in the ballot box.
The ease with which pre-poll votes can be cast and the convenience of voting before polling day (voting in one's lunch time, no interruption to the Saturday's activities, etc.) have lead to suggestions that some electors are casting pre-poll votes as a matter of convenience rather than for the grounds specified under the Commonwealth Electoral Act.
The 1983 legislation introduced the concept of general postal voters. An elector, who satisfies certain conditions, as set out in section 184A of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, may apply for registration as a general postal voter. The grounds for registration as a general postal voter are only slightly less generous than those applying for a postal vote. Postal vote grounds that are not allowed include circumstances perceived as temporary such as, approaching childbirth and employment or occupation considerations. The distance from a polling place is increased from eight to twenty kilometres.
Normally electors have to apply for a postal vote at each electoral event, but general postal voters are automatically sent postal vote material (postal vote certificate and ballot papers) by the AEC. By being registered as a general postal voter the elector avoids the necessity of applying for a postal vote at each subsequent electoral event. The number of registered general postal voters has increased substantially at recent elections. At the 1993 election, 40 775 electors were registered as general postal voters, this number increased to 109 817 (169 percent increase) for the 2001 election. The availability of registration as a general postal voter and the increased number of electors registered has no doubt contributed to the increase in postal votes at recent elections.
As mentioned above the Queensland rural division of Maranoa has the highest rate of general postal voters in Australia. At the 2001 election, 7.0 percent of electors enrolled in Maranoa were registered as general postal voters. A number of other rural divisions also have high rates of general postal voters: Kennedy 2.68 percent, Wannon 2.24 percent and Wide Bay 1.91 percent. Given the often limited access to polling places in rural divisions it is not surprising that a number of rural divisions should have high rates of general postal voters. What is more surprising is that a number of inner metropolitan and provincial divisions also have high rates of general postal voters. At the 2001 election, Shortland had a rate of 1.87 percent, Banks a rate of 1.79 percent, Newcastle 1.71 percent and Blaxland 1.71 percent. There does not appear to be any demographic factors to explain the high rates in these divisions. The number of electors registered as general postal voters for each division at the 2001 election is contained in Appendix 5.
In 1983 the Act was amended to facilitate the continued enrolment of electors going overseas. The 1983 amendments allowed electors who were going overseas with the intention of returning within three years (increased to six years in 1998) to be registered as an overseas elector. Provided electors are already enrolled they can register as an overseas elector up to three months prior to their expected departure date or within two years of departure. In 1998 the overseas enrolment provisions were further relaxed to allow eligible people living overseas the right to enrol under certain conditions. At the 2001 election some 10 636 electors were enrolled as overseas voters compared with 4087 at the 1996 election.
Overseas electors can either vote in person at selected Australian Diplomatic Missions as a pre-poll voter or apply for a postal vote. At the 2001 election 63 036 votes (50 006 pre-poll votes and 13 030 postal votes) were issued overseas compared with 39 889 at the 1993 election. The increase in the number of overseas electors registered and the number of votes cast overseas in recent elections have undoubtedly had an impact on the increase in declaration votes.
Electors can apply for a silent enrolment if they believe that having their address printed on the publicly available electoral roll could put their personal safety or their family's personal safety at risk. Silent enrolment means that the address of the elector will not be shown on the publicly available electoral roll, including any electronic copies of the roll. To apply for silent enrolment, electors must complete an application form, and submit the form together with a statutory declaration setting out in detail the nature of the personal risk. At the same time, electors can apply to be registered as general postal voters. Silent electors can vote postal, pre-poll or provisional.
Since 1996 the number of silent electors has more than doubled from 13 460 in 1996 to 30 713 in 2001. While a number of silent electors will avail themselves of the opportunity to become general postal voters and thus already be factored into the increase in declaration votes, a number of other silent electors will continue to vote as normal postal voters or as pre-poll or provisional voters. Thus the dramatic increase in silent electors would have contributed somewhat to the increase in declaration votes.
While legislative and administrative changes have probably had the most significant impact on the increase in declaration votes, continuing changes in society also play a part. Changing work patterns, retail shopping hours, availability of entertainment opportunities, greater mobility, changed family and living arrangements, and cultural changes would all play a part in breaking down the Saturday voting ritual.
As the pace of modern society increases, electors are becoming increasingly concerned about the use of their leisure time and are more apt to take advantage of opportunities that maximise that time. It could be that electors consider the inconvenience of ordinary voting at a polling place on the Saturday as an infringement on their time and are prepared to avail themselves of other voting opportunities that may be more convenient.
Regardless of the reasons, there appears to have been a substantial increase in convenience declaration voting at recent elections. Given the factors that appear to be driving this increase there is every expectation that this trend should continue.