How pre-poll voting is changing the nature of elections


McAllister says there has been a “silent revolution” in the way Australians vote: “I think it’s really changing the nature of democracy.”

Researchers say more and more of us are voting early because we find it more convenient. Marcus Phipps, a political marketing expert from Melbourne University, talks about the “Netflix effect”. “We have grown accustomed to being able to consume things when we want and how we want,” he told Crikey last year. “We’re very used to this idea that we can have control over what we do and when we do it.”

According to a 2016 Australian Electoral Commission survey, 78 per cent of those who voted on official election day were satisfied with the “length of time you had to wait” to vote. For those who pre-polled, the figure was 95 per cent.

Officially, you need a valid reason to pre-poll, such as you will be travelling, working or having a baby on election day. But unofficially, the rules around this are relaxed. As Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers told journalists at a recent election briefing: “We ask people to self-declare. I can tell you that 99.99 per cent of Australians say, ‘absolutely’ [I qualify to vote early].”

Because Australia has compulsory voting, the emphasis is on making it as easy for eligible people to vote as possible. “No electoral official worth their salt is going to turn you away,” says Sydney University election campaign expert, Dr Stephen Mills.

But if voters find pre-polling more convenient, parties and candidates find it quite the opposite. Liberal, National, Labor and Greens operatives variously described pre-polling as “gruelling,” “draining,” “brutal” and “it ain’t a lot of fun”.

With pre-polling running for three weeks in 2019, it becomes a logistical marathon for parties, as they need to find people who are available during business hours to stand at the booths, hand out how-to-vote cards and try to convince voters to choose them. As one Coalition campaigner explained, “if you’re not staffing your booths at pre-poll, you’re missing out”.

This means that once pre-polling opens, candidates eat, sleep and stand at pre-poll booths – and that’s about it. There are complex calculations behind the scenes, with campaign managers monitoring which booths are busy and where best to deploy their candidate and best campaigners.

Pre-polling is a logistical nightmare for parties, which have to try to staff the booths for weeks ahead of the election to try to convince voters to choose them.Credit:Graham Tidy

It is here the Labor party, which has a more organised membership base, is seen to have the edge over the Coalition. Minor party and independent candidates, who don’t have large volunteer numbers, can also struggle. Although Clive Palmer managed to circumvent this problem back in 2013 by reportedly paying backpackers to hand out fliers on his behalf.

One Greens campaigner said volunteers and candidates had resorted to standing on rubber mats during previous campaigns so their knees and backs could survive standing on hard pavements for hours on end. Others booked in massages. But despite the slog, parties don’t want to miss a moment as it gives them precious, direct access to voters, unlike the more hit-and-miss tactics of doorknocking, letter box drops or standing at train stations with flyers.

“The beauty of pre-polling is the voter actually comes to the candidate at the very time they’re about to vote,” says Mills.

With so many people voting during the election campaign, the nature and structure of election campaigns are also being affected. Traditionally, election campaigns built towards a crescendo on election day, where voters minds would be focussed and full of information right at the point where they would vote. Now, parties need to make sure that their big ticket items are released earlier and avoid making significant announcements in the final week.

The campaigns have also classically been marked by key events such as campaign launches and leaders’ debates. But with so many people having already voted – and therefore checked out – these naturally assume less significance.

Some political observers see this as a good thing that encourages policies to be released so there is more time for debate and scrutiny. Others say it means large chunks of the population may be voting before key details, such as costings, are available. It’s for this reason that Muller says that he will wait for a week or so before he casts his pre-poll vote in Wentworth: “You want to get an indication of how the campaign is going”.

In a recent analysis of the combined effects of postal voting and pre-poll voting, McAllister found it gives a slight advantage to the Liberal and National parties (even if they have more trouble staffing pre-poll booths). The Coalition has traditionally done well on postal votes, given the tendency of postal voters to be older and from regional areas, as well as the effort the Coalition puts into soliciting postal votes. But McAllister also found pre-poll voters, to a lesser extent, are more likely to be Coalition voters. “While the advantage enjoyed by the Coalition is not large, it could easily mean the difference between winning or losing a closely fought election,” he says.

Shortly before the last Parliament wrapped up, Coalition senator James McGrath and Labor MP Andrew Giles wrote a letter to Special Minister of State Alex Hawke, calling for an inquiry into early voting when the new Parliament is formed. As chair and deputy chair of the powerful electoral matters committee, the two felt there needs to be greater understanding about pre-polling and the impact it may be having on elections.

“On the one hand, there’s this sense that election day is the point where the community comes together and makes it choice,” says Giles. “On the other, it’s about maximising the capacity of eligible voters to cast their vote and recognising the world has changed dramatically.”

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