While racial discrimination in Australian election processes is mercifully nothing like that in the USA, Australian voters from ethnically diverse backgrounds are nevertheless significantly more likely to have their votes discarded on election night.
Take Fowler, as an example. In the 2022 federal election more than one in 10 votes were ruled invalid and scrutineers reported that in some booths it was closer to 20%. Fowler, in Sydney’s south-west, has one of the highest non-English speaking populations, many of whom have come to Australia as refugees from countries with different political systems.
In the neighbouring seat of Blaxland, centred on the multicultural suburb of Bankstown, the “informal vote”, that is, ballots which were deemed invalid, was 10.70%: the highest in the country.
This raises important questions about whether enough is being done to explain Australia’s preferential voting system.
Figure 1: A comparison of the rate of informal votes in Blaxland and Australia
So far, the count in the 2022 election has revealed an informal vote of 5.15% nationally for the House of Representatives, which is lower than the 5.54% figure for 2019. The contrast between increasing invalid votes in multicultural seats and decreasing invalid votes nationally tell the story of a segment of the Australian votership being left behind.
For the Senate, where voters are confronted with a much larger ballot paper and two options for completing it, the informal vote for Fowler was more than 10%.
This compares with 4.01% nationally.
Scrutineers in Fowler said that while some people had deliberately left their papers blank, most informal votes were due to other reasons: Some voters had failed to fill out all the squares on their House of Representatives green ballot paper, or they had simply put a tick or cross next to their chosen candidate.
None of these are valid votes under the federal rules of compulsory preferential voting, despite the voters’ first preference being clear.
In the Northern Territory seat of Lingiari, where there is a high Indigenous Population, informal votes were running at 7.37% and in the Melbourne seat of Hawke, on the city’s western fringe, at 8.07%.
In contrast, the informal vote in Wentworth Sydney’s wealthy easter suburbs was 2.47% and in Bean in Canberra, with high education levels, the informal vote was 2.86%.
In the western Tasmanian seat of Braddon, with a lower education level, the informal vote was 7.66%.
Consistent with results 2013, 2016, and 2019 elections, preliminary analyses of divisional-level informality indicate that cultural and linguistic diversity were associated with higher levels of informal voting at the federal election and its slowly getting worse.
The AEC provides resources online and information in many languages but it’s becoming clear that these resources are not reaching individuals in the voting booth.
We need to understand how much of the problem is language, unfamiliarity with the democratic process, or a lack of training by officials.
The AEC advertises in 33 languages and works with ethnic media and other third parties to spread messages about formality in-language. The AEC has gone to great lengths to ensure that votes in all communities are counted but it is clear that more support is needed.
The inflexibility on counting votes as valid, despite the voter’s intention being clear, also raises some serious issues about whether the voting system works against some groups.
Professors Lisa Hill and Sally Young find that:
“The most appropriate solutions to rising rates of informal voting are practical ones and include: the introduction of optional preferential voting – not only in federal elections but in all jurisdictions – so as to minimize the confusions caused by federalism and bicameralism; targeted electoral information and assistance schemes; ballots that more meaningfully capture disaffection and protest; and electoral education in schools and the media.”
While there has been considerable debate about how systemic factors disenfranchise ethnically diverse voters in the US, far less attention has been paid to a similar situation in Australia.
As of the 14th of June 2022, the AEC has counted 89.7% of votes in the federal election; their data shows the gradual increase of informal votes in ethnically diverse seats but once all votes have been counted there will be a clearer picture of the issue. Once these figures are released, there will be an updated analysis released here.
Per Capita Research Associate