Why we should vote how we want, when we want


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But four million voters cannot be dismissed. In a choice between what the people want and what the politicians prefer, the people should prevail and the politicians should buckle.

There are at least four good reasons for Australians to expect some flexibility in the way they cast their votes.

It would not just be foolish for the next government to tell Australians it knows better than them. It would also be wrong.

Australians are required by law to cast a vote and are fined if they do not do so. Only 20 or so countries enforce compulsory voting in this way, according to a study by the Australian Electoral Commission.

The list includes Argentina, Belgium, Chile, Brazil, Greece, Mexico, Singapore and Turkey. There is no such compulsory voting in the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, New Zealand, Japan, Germany or Canada.

Only 715,099 people cast an early vote at the 1993 election, but this had doubled to about 1.4 million by 2004. The trend this year suggests more than four million will do so by the end of Friday.

This means the early votes as a proportion of total votes have increased from 6.1 per cent at the 1993 election to 13.7 per cent at the 2007 election and about 25 per cent at this election.

The first argument for early voting is that Australians can rightly expect some flexibility to balance the obligation to vote. This is exactly what the law allows. Some are no doubt pushing the envelope of the early voting rules, but social change is an argument for more leeway rather than less.

More people are likely to be working, travelling or otherwise busy on a Saturday than just a few decades ago. Should they cancel a weekend away to cast their votes? Politicians would need a very good reason to restrict the freedom to vote early.

The second argument concerns the parties rather than voters. Early voting changes a campaign from a one-day wonder to a test of endurance. Candidates must have the stamina to attend the early voting centres for six days a week for three weeks if they hope to win.

The best candidates have parties or teams who can mobilise at polling stations over the weeks. This is survival of the fittest. Clive Palmer’s advertising blitz for the United Australia Party certainly has influence, but the greater test of a party is the number of volunteers it can mobilise over the long term.

The third argument is about campaign tactics. The old pattern encourages parties to delay policy announcements until the decisive few days at the end of the campaign. Who gains from this? It is a game played by the competing campaign headquarters.

As early voting grows, campaigns have to change. A party that believes it has a major, positive, vote-winning proposal will be wasting its breath if it waits for the final week to reveal its plan.

There is no harm to voters from encouraging parties to outline their policies sooner rather than later. In fact, there is a benefit.

Illustration: Andrew DysonCredit:

There is a fourth, but related, argument to be made as well. The most effective time to launch a scare campaign is in the final week before polling day, when time runs out to subject the claims to scrutiny. The public debate over a false claim can be drowned out by robocalls, direct mail and other advertising.

It was no accident that Labor launched its “privatising Medicare” campaign two weeks before the July 2 election in 2016. It is no accident the Coalition is using the final week of this campaign to warn that Labor’s negative gearing changes will drive down prices and push up rents.

Early voting means these tactics lose some – certainly not all – of their power. To really sink in, a scare campaign would have to be launched earlier. All sides would have more time to debate the facts.

While the Australian Electoral Commission may struggle to process all the early votes on Saturday night, this is no reason to stop them being cast. It is cause instead to change the way the commission works, such as hiring more staff to count those pre-poll votes as swiftly as possible. The commission has to work for the voters, not the other way around.

The sentimental appeal of election day, with its sausage sizzle at the local public school, still has real power for many Australians, but not enough power to stop people voting with their feet at pre-poll centres.

Katie Allen and Kelly O'Dwyer campaign on a pre-poll booth in Higgins on Saturday.

Katie Allen and Kelly O’Dwyer campaign on a pre-poll booth in Higgins on Saturday.Credit:Joe Armao

A campaign works like a magnifying glass sliding over the pages of a book, making a few words stand out for a brief moment in time. Those words could be “the economy’s not working for working people” or “now is not the time to turn back” but the concentration on the campaign has always been artificial.

Voters, surely, make their judgement on what they have seen over years of experience rather than what they have heard in a few weeks of campaigning. Millions of them know perfectly well what they want to do without waiting for a campaign slogan.

Politicians who worry about early voting might want to listen to Australians before they try to tighten the rules. The message might be summed up this way: “Now is not the time to turn back.”

David Crowe is Chief Political Correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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