Friday, July 8, 2011

Push to adopt new voting model

AUSTRALIAN voters would be freed from having to fill out all the boxes on their ballot paper at future federal elections, under a plan by Labor and the Greens as long as the candidate they vote for has registered a how-to-vote card.

Against strong opposition from Coalition MPs, the Labor/Greens majority on the parliamentary electoral committee has proposed adopting the South Australian system, in which votes that mark only one preference are counted and assumed to follow the candidate's preferences.

At last year's election, a record 729,304 votes for the House of Representatives were declared informal 5.5 per cent of all votes.

The Australian Electoral Commission estimates that almost half were deliberately invalid, with 210,587 voters lodging blank ballot papers, and 123,102 writing protest messages on their ballot papers.

But the commission estimates that more than 375,000 votes, or 2.9 per cent, were unintentionally informal, with more than 300,000 voters disqualified for writing only one or two preferences, instead of filling out the entire ballot paper.

Most were in New South Wales and Queensland, where voters at state elections no longer have to give more than one preference. In recent state elections, Labor has urged supporters to just vote 1 for Labor. Confusion between federal and state laws resulted in almost 200,000 NSW and Queensland voters at the last federal election marking only a single preference. All were declared informal.

The South Australian system was introduced in the mid-1980s, and is accepted by all parties in the state. The difference is that if you cast just a first preference in NSW and Queensland, only that preference is counted. In South Australia, you are assumed to have cast your preferences in line with those of your candidate's how-to-vote card.

In a dissenting report, Liberal MPs objected strongly to using this "fraudulent" system at federal elections. "Opposition members are resolutely opposed to any proposal that purports to count votes in a way not so marked or cast by the voters themselves," they wrote.

"This proposal is the equivalent of a drawn grand final being decided not by extra time or by a replay, but by adding the number of near misses to the score to determine a winner after the siren sounds."

Victorian Liberal senator Scott Ryan was a lone voice urging that voters be free to decide how many or how few preferences they want to direct.

The committee's report also urged that:

The deposits that candidates have to pay be doubled to $1000 for the House of Representatives and $2000 for the Senate, to discourage token candidates from cluttering up the ballot paper.

The electoral commission be allowed to update voter rolls from any sources of data it judges reliable, rather than requiring voters to register. The commission estimates 1.4 million Australians are not on the rolls, and about 165,000 provisional votes cast on polling day had to be rejected for that reason.