The turnout is pretty good actually


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.

ElectionVotedEnrolledEligibleTurnout %% 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.

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  1. I’m glad you’ve pointed that out Ben. I just posted a grizzle about it on the bludger – journalism at its shoddiest and most careless! Their editors should be informed of how careless they are.

  2. I think a big problem here, is the misrepresentation by the electoral commission.

    Earlier on, in the counting, in one of the lower house electorates in WA, the electoral commission published that the voter turnout was 65%, meaning a number of things, including that the person who won the seat, got only 179 votes more than the vote to not have the seat represented in the parliament (the 35% who did not vote).

    However, some days later, according to the electoral commission, the turnout had increased to 85%, indicating that 20% had voted AFTER the polling day.

    However, what in fact, the electoral commission had misrepresented as the turnout, was the proportion of votes cast, that the lazy %$#@’s had actually counted.

    But, then, when the electoral commission made clear to WA voters, before the polls closed in WA, that it was not worth voting for the ALP, or, anyone other than the LNP, because the LNP had already won the election, so WA voters may as well vote for the winning side, to ensure they got a government member, rather than an opposition member, in the parliament, it is not really surprising that the electoral commission misrepresented what was happening with the turnout and the votes.

    I expect that the electoral commissioner will get a substantial bonus, for winning the election for the LNP government.

  3. Newspapers seem to believe that they can tell the story as the data shows at a specific time and then not correct the story. Will any newspaper actually reveal the final count in any seat at any time in next twelve months.
    In fact I suspect the first time Newspapers reveal the final figures will be just before the 2022 election.
    Of course There are no Newspapers of Record any more.
    In 2016 I thought The Australian did a good job covering the election with stories on campaign HQ and excellent graphics on some seats and especially party leader movements but in 2019 they reverted to being camp followers and glorified photocopiers of a feed from Major parties.
    The biggest decline in standards remains in the Community Throwaway Newspapers. Nothing in them but a feed of material to support those that advertise. If a party put up a demented child rapists for a metropolitan seat community newspapers would show pictures of him standing at railway station greeting voters PROVIDED his party advertised in their paper.

    Journalists seem to know nothing about government other than the internal struggles within Parliament House.

    No coverage about booth manning. Did Clive Palmer do better where he had workers? Did Bob Katter have workers? How did ALP and ACTU workers interact?
    Were there any booths where how to Votes not handed out? What was impact on vote?
    Journalists seem to need a Media Release formatted so they can cut and paste to write a story.
    Since Election why has there been no analysis of failure of Newspoll. Newspoll accuracies brought down two PM but the organisations inaccuracies seems only to be an issue on fringes of eccentric political movements.

  4. 8:40 on Saturday and the article is still there – but they have taken down the bar charts and seem to be reading the “turnout” figures (which are actually the percent-counted-so-far-numbers) from the latest counts. They have amended some chunks of the text, but are still making the crazy claim that turnout has fallen, and are still blaming it on the young. I have long thought that journalists are like excitable children to whom everything is new(s) – here is more proof! Time for a grownup to step in, if there are any left at the SMAge. And yes, Bret B, the Commission’s inability to use accurate words to describe what they’re going doesn’t help – but journos who have reported more than one election should be able to translate AEC-speak.

  5. Innumeracy at the SMH

    Shane Wright and Max Koslowski put forward the hypothesis that the “turnout” of voters at the 2019 Federal Election “plunged” compared to the 2016 election. WRONG.

    They further hypothesize that the plunge was worse in seats with younger voters. WRONG AGAIN

    The problem arises because the SMH appear to have used the median age of the POPULATION and not the median age of the enrolled VOTERS.

    On a Divisional basis, the probability that the turnout in 2019 was NO DIFFERENT from 2016 is P >=0.22 by Student’s t-test. The null hypothesis is therefore accepted.

    To look at it in another way, the R-sq correlation coefficient for a scatter plot between the median age of the voters and the turnout swing is .029. (=0.17 Pearson correlation coefficient). That is, turnout did not decline in electorates with younger voters.

  6. Realistically, any analysis should omit the numbers for the 2019 election, since they are still being counted. Looking at the 2007-16 numbers, two things seem to be clear – the % of the eligible population who are so uninterested in the political system that they have never even bothered to enrol is clearly dropping. And that’s a good thing. However, the turnout from those enrolled is also dropping. While that’s a concern, it’s only part of the story. Of more relevant would be the % of enrolled voters who do not cast a valid vote, so we should instead be looking at the trend in the sums of the informal + no-show voters for each election. Or is this what the non-turnout (100% – turnout) figure actually means? Does turnout count the number of valid votes or the number of people who have their names marked off? So what is the trend, if any, in the number of people not casting valid votes, whether not voting at all or voting informally? And if there is a trend .. why?

    As for the SMH .. it’s editorial & journalistic standards have been in clear decline for some years now. To be honest, most days I find it hard to distinguish it from a tabloid (and not just in size). Add to that the editorials are getting more and more hysterical (as in like one would see in the Daily Terror) and I have complained on numerous occasions, tho’ doing so is as pointless as Canute trying to hold back the tide! Add to that the SMH’s drift to the right .. or am I drifting further to the left?

  7. Bret

    Ay journalist who has so much as a smidgeon of common sense would look at the actual FIGURES and realise that the AEC ALWAYS reports turnout as the number counted and does not count absentees or postals until RECEIVED ad processed.

    This is so obvious and basic that it suggests the papers are in freefall. Frankly i think that papers could save money by sacking their jounos and hiring year 12 students to work part time. The results would be better and way more accurate. Alternatively they could hire oldies with a smidgen of analytical ability perhaps at a discout (to allow them to keep their part pensions) – or maybe for freebies and booze.

  8. The other factor to consider is the 1.5 million people who are part of the resident population, e.g. New Zealanders, aged 18 and over but who cannot vote. The total eligible to vote is 16.9 million, the number of adults aged 18 and over in the estimated resident population in June last year is 18.4 million. The gap between the two will probably keep growing given the increasing number of people in Australia denied a path to citizenship: the government welcomes their hard work but ensures that they have no political rights.

  9. They’re still peddling their nonsense. On the online-only Bris Times the headline/link to today’s slightly watered-down version of the story reads “Did a failure by young people to vote play a role in the Coalition’s election victory? Seats such as Brisbane and Griffith will fail to have turnouts of 90 per cent.”

    So I looked at the latest AEC Tallyroom figures and guess what? Brisbane is now showing the (misnamed) “turnout” at 90.23%. Griffith is indeed sitting at only 89.24% with 3500 declaration envelopes still to be processed so it will get near to 90 – and besides how many divisions have ended up in the 88s or 89s in previous years? A lot. I think this must be the first election the two reporters have reported – I suspect it may also be the first one they have voted in.

  10. The numbers seem to suggest that while the AEC is managing to get a higher percentage of eligible people actually enrolled, the proportion of those enrolled who actually vote has been falling, but is apparently now stable (or potentially creeping up) since 2016. On raw numbers, the voting roll has increased by half a million more than the numbers who have voted (so far). IF final counts don’t cancel that difference, it would appear that the AEC is more successful in persuading people to enrol than the politicians are in persuading people to vote (for them or against them!).
    Of course the number of informal votes is likely (at a guess) to accentuate that conclusion.

  11. Dominic, I just don’t think you can come to that conclusion when the proportion of the electorate which is voting is increasing. Even with a slight uptick in the informal vote the effective participation rate has increased at every election in the last decade. Check out my latest post with more info on that point.

    I also think we need to stop just treating informal votes as if they are a symptom of disengagement. Some of them are, but many others are failed attempts to cast a formal vote, and is more of a symptom of a complicated system disenfranchising voters then those voters opting out.

  12. Ben

    I was a scrutineer ad I can say that nearly all the informal votes were failed attempts. usually putting two 3s or 4s or some such.

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