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The shift towards early voting

May 2, 2022 - 11:55 -- Admin

There has been a long term trend in Australian politics of voters shifting away from casting a ballot on election day, in favour of voting earlier in the campaign. This has usually taken place through two methods: an in-person pre-poll vote, or a postal ballot.

These trends have increased significantly in elections held since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

In this post I’ve analysed the long-term trend in federal politics, and the more recent trend in state elections over the last two years. I’ve also mapped out the electoral map, showing which seats had higher or lower proportions voting early in 2019.

I previously posted about the trend towards pre-poll voting in federal elections in this post back in 2019, and I’ll repost the same graph here:

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Postal voting has increased, but only slowly, and it has been largely stable over the last decade. The big increase has been through in-person pre-poll voting. And that increase has been accelerating. Pre-poll voting made up 11.3% in 2010, compared to 32.7% in 2019. Only just over half of all votes in 2019 were ordinary election day votes, although for our purposes in this blog post I will be lumping in all votes cast on election day together, including absent votes, which are cast at regular booths outside of the voter's home booth.

We've seen similar trends in pretty much every state election, although the exact details vary depending on electoral procedures that either encourage or discourage the shift away from election day. There's also some variation in how election results are reported. The AEC publishes separate figures for each pre-poll centre, while some state commissions only publish total figures for each electorate. Indeed South Australia only publishes a single 'declaration votes' total for all types of non-ordinary votes, including pre-poll and postal ballots.

We've now had quite a few elections during the COVID-19 era, including four state elections, two territory elections, two federal by-elections and numerous state by-elections and local government elections. Indeed the only major electoral events not to have been held under COVID-19, apart from a federal election, are the state elections in our two biggest states.

This next chart shows the shift in how people have voted in the four state elections held since 2020, as well as the ACT election. I left off the Northern Territory election as it is quite unusual in terms of vote share.

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Every state saw a noticeable decline in election day voting, but it varied. I suspect the variation can be explained by the extend of outbreak in each state at the time of the election, or at least their previous experience. The change was most mild in Tasmania and South Australia. The biggest drops were in Queensland and ACT, which held elections in the first year of the pandemic.

There's also variation in where that vote went. The ACT and Tasmania saw very little increase in postal voting, but it grew quite a lot in Western Australia. Still, every state saw pre-poll voting take on more of those voters shunning election day. Unfortunately South Australia does not break down the various non-election day voting options.

There have also been two federal by-elections since the start of the pandemic, both held in 2020 for the seats of Eden-Monaro in south-eastern NSW and Groom in Queensland. Eden-Monaro was a very close race, while Groom was an easy win for the LNP, but both featured a contest between the major parties. Conveniently for us, it also featured mostly the same rules that apply at this federal election.

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The downward trend in election day voting was less dramatic, but was there - almost 10 percentage points in each seat. The increase in the pre-poll vote was quite small, but the postal vote increased more significantly in each race.

So what do we know yet about 2022?

In past federal elections, we had three weeks of pre-poll voting, which would have meant pre-poll booths opening today. Since the last election, it has been reduced to two weeks.

Pre-poll voting does not happen evenly across the voting period. The rate tends to accelerate later in the campaign, with less than a fifth cast during the first of the three weeks. You can see this in a chart in this blog post from 2019.

The push to reduce pre-poll voting may have been partly motivated by a desire to push voters back to voting on the day, but I suspect cutting a week won't do much to achieve that outcome. But it will certainly reduce the number of hours of booth work for campaign volunteers handing out how-to-votes.

While pre-poll voting hasn't started, the postal vote process is well under way.

As of last night, 1.49 million applications have been made for postal voting. This compares to 870,429 applications made at this stage in 2019, and a final number of 1.6 million applications in 2019.

Not every application results in a postal vote - those 1.6 million applications in 2019 resulted in 1.24 million postal votes.

Even still, that's a 71% increase in applications at this stage in the count. And 12,437 votes have been returned to the AEC.

All of this is consistent with a significant increase in postal voting, as was seen at the 2020 federal by-elections. i will track these numbers, and the pre-poll numbers, over the next three weeks.

Next up - I'll be back on Wednesday with a blog post about which electorates have higher rates of early voting, and then later in the week I'll have a blog post looking at how voting patterns vary between early voters and election day voters.