The pre-poll surge: what, exactly, is the problem?


A parliamentary inquiry into the 2019 federal election has recently finished receiving submissions, and amongst other issues a number of commentators have bemoaned the growing numbers of voters casting their votes early.

Federal minister Paul Fletcher is worrying about how the volume of pre-poll voting may “erode the integrity” of our electoral system, while law professor George Williams worries about a “distorted election process”.

But I don’t see why it’s a problem if some voters decide to vote up to three weeks early, particularly considering that most of those voters cast their ballot in the final week.

Firstly, it’s worth clarifying the facts. Yes, pre-poll is open for about three weeks in federal elections. But most of the votes are cast much closer to election day.

Pre-poll voting has been increasing gradually since at least 2007, and is the primary cause of a big decline in the proportion cast as ordinary election-day votes (down to 54.4% of formal votes in 2019).

4.8 million votes were cast via pre-poll in 2019. Of these, about 2.6 million (54%) were cast in the final week, with less than 14% cast in the first week of voting. While there are more and more people voting early, most votes are still cast very close to election day.

When you factor in the different vote types and when pre-poll votes were cast, about 70-80% of votes were cast on the Wednesday before election day or later, with 75-85% cast in the final week, and 86-96% cast in the final two weeks.

This trend has largely been driven by the convenience of being able to vote on a wider range of days. It has likely contributed to a higher number of voters casting a ballot as a proportion of the eligible population, and it’s definitely popular with voters. I start from the position that this is likely a good thing, absent evidence that it’s a problem. So is there any evidence?

Williams explicitly refers to the “distortion” caused by voters casting their votes before key election moments:

The result is a distorted election process in which many people elect their representatives based on incomplete information. Much of the electorate cast their ballot before Labor released its election costings and Prime Minister Scott Morrison launched his campaign. The lack of information can prove decisive, especially in close contests where votes may have shifted if people were exposed to the full suite of policies and campaign gaffes, or where candidates were disendorsed.

Yet evidence suggests that large parts of the Australian population make up their mind well in advance.

The Australian Election Study has asked voters when they made up their mind since at least 1987, and at least 35% of respondents have said that they made up their mind before the start of the election campaign, and that rate was as high as 55% in 2007.

Numerous other polls have asked this question with different time frames, but it’s clear that it’s only a small minority of people wait until election day to make up their minds.

I don’t see why we can’t leave the decisions to voters as to when they vote. If they’ve long since made up their mind and know nothing will change their mind, why not let them vote early, even if it is simply for convenience?

Of course there is a risk that something may come to light after someone has voted, but that risk applies to all of us following election day. If an election-altering moment is postponed until the Monday after the election, none of us will be able to use it to influence our voting decision.

Fletcher bizarrely argues that pre-poll voting threatens the “integrity” of the system without explaining how. I would argue pre-poll voting does not pose any threat to integrity (unlike forms of voting used away from the polling booth, which may be necessary but are not ideal), but it does pose a threat to the integrity of the political parties’ media plans.

If there’s a problem with voters casting their ballot before parties release their costings, or hold their campaign launches, then parties should adjust to this new reality and move these events forward. It’s always been silly that campaign launches happen so late, and it’s always been a mark of disrespect for voters that parties hold back on major policy announcements for maximum impact. Parties have had years to adapt to this change. It hasn’t happened overnight.

(EDIT: A number of people have pointed out on Twitter that it also makes it harder for parties to staff pre-poll booths. A majority of volunteers are busy at work on weekdays so it can be harder to find people to cover multiple booths over multiple weeks. Still I don’t think that’s a good reason. Most voters still vote towards the end, so parties can cover most voters, if not all.)

There is no inherent good reason why voters should all have to vote together on election day. In our modern society there is tremendous information out there about the political parties and candidates. Campaigns don’t really start on the day the election is called, and even then there is plenty of time to educate voters before voting starts to ramp up. “Tradition” is not a good reason.

Fletcher and Williams do make one technically correct point. It is true that the parliament has the power to make the decision about how much we encourage or discourage pre-poll voting. We could decide to make it harder to access pre-poll by more strictly enforcing the requirements or limiting the availability. But the parliament should consider the evidence we have from this evolving experiment: we’ve now been changing the way we vote for over a decade and things are working pretty well.

Pre-poll is working pretty well right now, and unless there are better arguments I don’t see why the federal parliament should act to make it harder for people to vote in a way that is convenient for them.

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  1. Absolutely agree, Ben. If there are any cases of people who have voted pre-poll and then regretted it because they later changed their mind (“Oh damn – ScoMo’s policy speech was so brilliant that I now regret having voted Labor”), they’ve never complained publicly about it. The only valid criticism is that it swallows up a lot of resources of the AEC and political parties. That might justify cutting the period down from 3 weeks to 2 weeks or 10 days, but certainly not abolishing it or making the conditions more stringent. Anything that makes it easier to vote is A Good Thing.

  2. I usually know how I am going to vote as soon as the candidates are announced.

    The only thing that changes is things like does Hanson go last or second last, or where do the independents go.

    I vote on the day anyway though, as there are no wheelchair friendly prepoll booths I can use.

  3. I always prepoll usual on the first day pre-polling starts. No crowded or que’s then and I know who I want to vote for. Further campaigning or leaflet drops will not affect my vote between when pre polling starts and election day. I would be happy to have all voting via postal voting like in most council election in Victoria.

    Incumbents put last often too.

  4. All of the points made in this post are good ones, and I would just add a few more.

    First, Mr Fletcher’s criticisms of the AEC in his submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters are completely unwarranted. The AEC in fact raised the issue of the rise in early voting in a submission lodged with the Committee in June 2008 – before Mr Fletcher was even in Parliament – noting even then that “it is now misleading to conceive of an election as taking place on a single polling day: there is, in fact, a polling period”.

    The AEC further put it to the Committee that it had three options. “Firstly, the parliament can accept that there now exist two normal forms of voting and implement an effective and efficient way of administering this within the electoral system.” … “The second option is that, the Parliament may decide that the shift to early voting has increased to unacceptable levels, and that such a shift is not acceptable in the Australian electoral system. If this were the case, the CEA would need to be amended to define the evidence which voters would have to produce to establish their eligibility for an early vote in terms of Schedule 2 to the CEA, and to empower the relevant polling officials to refuse to issue a vote. This would represent a major deviation from past practice in living memory.” … “ The third option is to do nothing. In the AEC’s view such an approach would in effect make the shape of Australian elections subject to unpredictable trends, almost certainly resulting in the system becoming outdated and inefficient.”

    Faced with this clear choice, the Committee, at paragraph 7.58 of its report on the 2007 election, came down firmly in favour of the first option (with no dissent from any of the coalition members): “The committee’s preferred approach therefore is to embrace the trend to increased early voting. The committee considers that a range of measures should be adopted that will have the effect of making it easier for electors to take advantage of early voting but at the same time allowing the AEC to conduct the counting of votes in a more cost effective and timely manner.”

    Clearly the Parliament has a right to review the position it took in 2008, but that shouldn’t entail making smarmy and unjustifiable complaints about the actions of the AEC. Especially since another factor driving the move away from voting on election day, which the parties won’t want to talk about, has been their practice of sending out postal vote applications in bulk, including to people who didn’t ask for them and might not have thought of voting by post but for the stimulus from the parties.

    Second, it’s worth bearing in mind that there it can’t be certain that a cutback in the time available for pre-poll voting will push people back to voting on election day. It may, instead, lead them to opt for postal voting, which is an easier process than it’s ever been now that you can apply for a postal vote online. And postal voting is an inferior process to pre-poll voting, in that votes are recorded without any state guarantees of secrecy of the type provided at pre-poll voting centres, and in circumstances where scrutineers cannot be present. A further blowout in postal voting would represent more of a threat to the “integrity” of an election than increased pre-poll voting. I may have overlooked it, but I haven’t seen any suggestion from the parties that the time available for postal voting should also be compressed.

    Third, one might even suggest that if voters are increasingly seeing little or no value in listening to the messages with which they are bombarded during the election campaign, it’s the parties and candidates who should be reviewing their approach.

    I do see arguments in favour of attempting to reduce the number of votes cast early, but they are mainly about administrative efficiency: the AEC has, for one day every three years, a massive workforce of tens of thousands deployed at polling places, and the need to have a separate workforce to count on election night the votes now being cast pre-poll is quite a burden. There is also an argument that having votes cast over a period diminishes the ritualistic elements of election day, in which I still see value.

  5. Agree on the whole, but the “pre-poll votes cast per day” chart doesn’t dissuade me that the first of the three weeks is probably a waste of effort and money.

  6. I’ve voted early for the past 10 years, purely for convenience and I absolutely know who I’ll vote for by the time an election is called. If one was called today I would vote tomorrow if I could because I know now which way I’d vote. Everything said on the campaign trail is a moot point for me, their past actions count more for the promises for the future as far as I’m concerned.

  7. Major parties will do nothing about pre polling. It gives them a decided advantage. As a DLP volunteer in 1960’s and 1970’s I was expected to spend 12 Hours on my feet. As a 20 year old this was not a problem. By 2016 to support a minor party I needed to be on my feet 10 Hours a day for 16 Days. Major parties have many volunteers and they can roster their volunteers for a few hours at a time. See my comments on Tally Room blog for pre polls predominantly 2013, 2016 and 2019.
    I can not justify a restriction on pre polling but I recognise that the growth of pre polling has benefitted major parties. Therefore it will continue. During 2016 General election and Longman by- election minor parties made up great majority of candidates but never out numbered either of major party volunteers. Liberals used large number of imports from all over Brisbane to aggressively attempt to prevent minor parties from getting How to Votes into hands of voters.

  8. HI Ben, Congratulations!
    Regarding this issue:
    People should be able to vote at more convenient times than just polling day
    Long pre-poll lead-in time disadvantage smaller parties
    Most pre-pollers vote in the last week
    The answer is obvious: reduce the number of days pre-poll is available, maybe 12 days before the election day

  9. At only 14% take up in the first week, it is a waste of tax payers money. Two weeks is more than enough time for pre-poll.

  10. Two weeks prepolling is fine – that gives people plenty of options. Third week adds unnecessary pressures to both the AEC in organising propelling booths and recruiting staff and the parties finding people to hand out HTVs – adds an extra advantage to the two major parties so on balance – two weeks not three.

  11. 3 weeks is excessive, cut it to 2 weeks.

    Given the significantly greater potential for reduced integrity with postal votes, they should be more tightly restricted to voters who are unable to get to a polling booth, which should include absent and pre-poll booths.

  12. Tom
    Quite correct. Postal voting needs to be managed completely by AEC. At the moment it is promoted by major parties and only gets to AEC after submission of application form. Parties should not be involved in postal voting other than to provide How to Votes.. In fact AEC could even forward HTV to voters with postal vote. From the graph though how long before postal voting becomes an insignificance.
    In many ways I just want electoral laws to be Stabilised. Changes after each election just confuse voters, party volunteers, and AEC officers.

    The plethora of variations between Electoral Acts is a nightmare for voters and especially Party officials.
    Variations include:
    What needs to be authorised
    Can authorising authority be a party office
    Do How to Votes , pamphlets, corflutes need to be registered
    Distance from entrance volunteers have to stand at: polling booths pre polling booths, AEC offices

    Donations ( and or transfer payments) permitted or prohibited, reportable or not reportable,
    A Federal Secretary of a party needs at least 9 Acts or Regs providing Not involved in local government elections.

    When Federal Secretary of a minor party I had to just wash my hands of 5 states and leave to volunteers in 5 states.
    The knowledge base of most party functionaries is based predominantly on errors made previously by own party or other party or candidate.

  13. Well as long as you are happy with the two party state – as the nsw electoral commissioner is – and don’t want representation of your needs and happy with a party’s lobbyists agenda, then prepolling is essential to further bastardise our democracy?

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