The Sydney Morning Herald published an article this afternoon claiming that the recent federal election had “one of the lowest voter turnouts” in the last century. Further down the authors claim that the turnout is “on track to be lower than the 2016 election”, despite acknowledging that this is partly due to the record high enrolment rate bringing in a larger proportion of the eligible population than ever before.
I was planning to write a post explaining why this is misleading, that while it may be true that the proportion of the roll to have cast a vote may have gone down, you can’t spin a story about voters becoming disengaged while the proportion of the eligible population who have voted has been steadily increasing.
Yet it turns out that no such nuance is needed, because even the basic fact at the core of the article is false. Updated statistics tonight reveal that the turnout at this election is about to surpass the 2016 election, with more votes yet to be counted.
Yes there are reasons to be concerned about voters’ “disengagement”, but it is false to claim that the number of Australians who are voting is dropping.
Turnout is traditionally defined as the number of people who voted as a proportion of those enrolled to vote. Yet we should also use a different metric which looks at the proportion of the eligible electorate who are enrolled to vote.
This chart shows the proportion of the total eligible population who have turned out to vote, as well as the proportion of the electoral roll.
The AEC has been getting better at enrolling people, in part thanks to the “direct enrolment” system which allows for potential voters to be enrolled without an explicit application based on other government data. This has seen the roll increase from 90.9% of the eligible population in 2010 to 96.8% in 2019.
(It’s worth pointing out that while the marriage plebiscite may have helped it is probably only a small factor. Most of the growth happened between the 2013 and 2016 elections.)
This has meant that it is harder to meet the same turnout goals due to the size of the roll increasing.
|Election||Voted||Enrolled||Eligible||Turnout %||% of eligible|
Yet despite these concerns, turnout is still looking set to be a bit higher in 2019 than in 2016. At the moment turnout is 0.15% less than in 2016, with the final result not yet declared in 117 out of 151 seats. More votes will be counted and it will undoubtedly result in a higher turnout.
The authors have made two mistakes: the first is comparing turnout without accounting for the increasing completeness of the roll, and the second mistake is to compare final figures for 2016 to interim figures for 2019, and making conclusions about how low the turnout has been on that basis.
They also include data for five seats they identify as having low turnout, and there are good reasons to be concerned about lower turnout in seats like Lingiari in particular, but the numbers they used are already out of date and in one case turnout is now higher than in 2016.
Their data claims that turnout in Melbourne has dropped from 86.8% to 81.6%. The turnout in Melbourne is actually 87.2%, with some votes left to be counted. The drop-off in turnout has almost closed in Blaxland, Sydney and Lalor, with the turnout jumping 2% since their data was compiled. It’s not necessarily their fault for putting out partial information, but I don’t think you can make conclusions about dropping turnout when so many votes are left to be counted, and you should make your qualifications very clear.
This AEC page identifies how many ballot envelopes are yet to be processed. Only in seven seats have all votes been processed. In 49 seats (almost one third of the country) there are 2000 or more envelopes yet to be processed.
Not every envelope will end up counting as a vote, but there are almost 247,000 envelopes yet to be processed. If half of those ended up counting, it would result in a turnout at 91.6% (0.6% higher than in 2016), and would see 88.7% of the eligible population turning out to vote, up from just 84.7% in 2010.
I actually think that’s great, and I don’t think journalists should be using incomplete data to tell the opposite story.
Update 9:45pm: Since publishing this story another 541 votes were counted and now turnout has exceeded the 2016 figure.
Update 11:00pm: It has been pointed out to me that I was using a slightly incorrect enrolment figure for 2016, which means the turnout was actually 91.01%, not 90.86%. This means the 2019 turnout has not yet surpassed 2019 but it will certainly do so.