2020 Groom By-election – Rates of Pre-Poll and Postal Voting

Voting for the Groom by-election has been underway today with few surprises expected in the result.

Groom is an ultra-safe LNP seat, held with a margin of 20.5%. The by-election has been caused by the resignation of LNP member John McVeigh. Only four candidates have nominated, well down on the 14 that contested the Eden-Monaro by-election in July. That Labor nominated a candidate in such as safe LNP seat was greeted with general surprise, while the Greens have opted out of contesting a Federal by-election for the first time in a quarter-century.

The LNP’s Garth Hamilton is expected to win easily and I won’t be providing any coverage of the results tonight. The best places to follow the results are the Australian Electoral Commission’s website, and via William Bowe at his Pollbludger site.

As I have for other elections this year, I thought it worth devoting a post to pre-poll and postal voting rates. With Covid-19 still around, you would have expected a high rate of postal and pre-poll voting. In fact the numbers are only slightly higher in Groom than at last year’s Federal election.

It gives me an opportunity to raise an issue about postal vote applications that should be addressed before the next Federal election. In short, there are serious questions as to whether we should still be allowing postal vote applications as late as the Wednesday before polling day. With Australia Post scaling back postal delivery times, what is the point of allowing application for postal votes too late for the postal vote pack to be delivered before polling day?

Postal Voting

The graph below shows the accumulated total by day of Groom postal vote applications at the by-election and at last year’s Federal election. Postal vote applications represented 14.4% of enrolment in 2019 and 21.8% at the by-election.

The AEC is permitted to accept postal vote applications from the date when the election date becomes known up until the Wednesday before polling day. At the 2019 Federal election, the date was announced and writ issued on the same day, 11 April, allowing 36 days for receipt of applications. This year, the date for the by-election was announced on 8 October and the writ issued on 26 October. These timings meant there were 36 days for receipt of postal vote applications in 2019, and 48 days for the by-election.

The number of postal vote applications rose from 15,244 to 23,681. Neither number includes a few hundred applications withdrawn or determined to be duplicates. The number produced by the AEC’s on-line application rose from 5,126 to 11,760 at the by-election, 33.6% of the total to 49.7%. Liberal and LNP generated applications rose from 7,577 to 9,097, but represented a decline from 39.7% to 38.4% of all applications. The number of General Postal Voters (GPVs) sent postal votes without application rose from 1,749 to 2,100, and AEC paper applications were under 800 at both elections. There were four Labor Party generated applications in 2019 and none for the by-election.

In the above graph, both lines rise around days 22-25, representing the point where GPVs were added to the applicants list. Postal votes were not dispatched until around day 30, after the close of nominations. There is an oddity about the shapes of the two graphs after day 35. At last year’s Federal election, the numbers tailed-off in the last two weeks, but at the by-election there was a surge in the second last week of the campaign with more than 2,000 postal votes dispatched each day in the second last week.

Some of this may be due to the by-election being conducted immediately after the Queensland state election. Low awareness of the by-election may have resulted in voters sending in their applications late. There may also be questions of whether the LNP was handing-on the applications it received to the AEC in a timely manner.

At the state election there was criticism that postal votes were being delivered late, with fingers of blame being pointed at both the Electoral Commission Queensland and Australia Post. Perhaps questions should also be asked of the political parties who introduce a second postal leg to applications by sending out application forms with a return address to the political party rather than the AEC/ECQ. The Electoral Commission’s postal vote dispatch process is a major exercise interfacing with Australia Post, while the political party’s processes are smaller scale.

Should we have an Earlier Close-off Date for Postal Vote Applications?

The slowing down of postal delivery services raises serious questions about why applications are permitted as late as the Wednesday before polling day. In a rural electorate like Groom, many postal votes sent out two days before polling day won’t arrive until after election day. That either denies people to the right to vote, or opens the opportunity for people to vote after election day.

Compare this with the recent Queensland election. Under a new state provision, applications for postal votes closed two weeks before election day and before pre-poll voting started. That meant fewer people received late postal votes after polling day, and many more postal votes were completed and returned before polling day, greatly assisting the election night count.

Debate continues in Canberra over whether to cut back pre-poll voting from three weeks to two. That debate should also look at the closing date for postal vote applications. Closing applications earlier will ensure more postal votes are received by voters in time to vote, and also increase the number of postal votes returned before polling day.

That would improve chances of people being able to use their postal vote, and cut down on the long-tail of late arriving postal votes that so often delays counting in the final seats at Federal elections.

Pre-Poll Voting

The slightly shorter time between the issue of the writ and polling day for the by-election resulted in there being only 14 days of pre-polling compared 16 at last year’s Federal election.

The graph below shows the day by day pre-poll vote numbers in Groom at the 1919 Federal election and at the 2020 by-election. Note that the 2019 figures include about 3,000 pre-poll votes taken for other electorates.

The final graph plots the accumulated pre-poll votes by day. As noted above, the 2019 figures include postal votes for other districts. The red dotted line at the top right of the graph shows the 25,073 pre-poll votes taken within district in 2019, a figure matched for the by-election.

In summary, the rise in postal voting was in-line with the increase seen at the Eden-Monaro by-election, and may also reflect the surge in postal voting seen at the recent state election. Pre-poll voting did not increase, similar to Eden-Monaro when a higher profile by-election saw a small increase in pre-poll voting.

The campaign for the Groom by-election has been much lower profile than the Eden-Monaro by-election and the Queensland state election. It has not attracted the huge surge in pre-poll and postal voting seen for the state election. That could be due to lack of public knowledge of the by-election, or due to declining concern over Covid-19 and the AEC not being as up-front in encouraging postal voting as the ECQ was.

If the by-election produces a lower than normal turnout, lack of profile for the contest may be the cause.