Early Voting at Queensland Elections and its Political Impact

As a Covid-19 measure, the Electoral Commission Queensland (ECQ) is encouraging electors to vote early in 2020. This means the Queensland election will see a record rate of votes cast before the traditional polling day on 31 October.

While the overall early voting rates will be exaggerated by the circumstances of holding an election under Covid-19 precautions, the switch to early voting continues a trend that has been accelerating over the last decade.

This post looks at Queensland elections since 1986, how and when people have voted, as well as the differing levels of party support by vote type at the 2017 state election.

First, the chart below shows very clearly how Queensland have shifted away from voting on election day.

When the Goss government was elected in 1989, 88.4% of votes were cast as ‘ordinary’ votes at a polling place in the voter’s home district (or gazetted as a joint polling place), and another 9.0% taken as absent votes on polling day outside of the voter’s district. Only 1.0% were postal votes, and 1.6% ‘Other’, which includes special hospitals, electoral visitor votes, and various special categories of declarations votes. Pre-poll votes as we know them now, weren’t permitted until the Goss government’s new Electoral Act came into force at the 1992 election.

By 2017 there had been a massive decline in the proportion of votes taken on election day. Only 57.2% of votes were ordinary polling day votes and another 4.9% polling day absent votes. More than a third of votes were cast before polling day, 26.2% as pre-poll votes and 10.7% as postal votes.

Some of these categorisations skip over changes in the way votes are collected and dealt with by electoral commissions. The various types of votes can be split into two broad categories.

  • Ordinary votes where a voter’s name is marked off the electoral roll, they are given and complete a ballot paper, and the completed ballot paper is placed directly in a ballot box.
  • Declaration votes where a voter does not have their name marked off the roll. The voter is given and completes a ballot paper, and a declaration vote envelope on the outside of which their personal details are recorded. The completed ballot paper is sealed within the declaration vote envelope. In the week after the election, declaration votes (of various types) are first processed to check the outside details against the electoral roll. If everything is correct, identifying details are removed from the envelope, and once a large enough batch of de-identified envelopes has been accumulated, the ballot papers are removed and counted.

Declaration votes include absent votes, postal votes, and until about a decade ago, used to include all pre-poll votes. Declaration votes are time consuming and expensive to deal with, and unless the pre-processing is done ahead of polling day, declaration votes cannot be counted on election night.

For this reason, electoral commissions have tried to switch certain types of declaration votes into ordinary votes. In Queensland this has been by several strategies.

  • More joint polling places converting absent votes into ordinary votes
  • Greater use of all-districts centres, again converting absent votes into ordinary votes
  • The issuing of pre-poll votes as ordinary votes both within district and at all-district pre-poll centres

That explains why absent voting has declined over the last three decades, as shown in Chart 1. More absent votes are collected as ordinary votes, and voters who know they will be away from home on polling day now make use of pre-poll voting.

What has happened in Queensland mirrors what has happened across all Australian jurisdictions. I detailed these changes at federal elections in this post.

The growth in pre-poll voting required pre-polls to become ordinary votes so that they could be counted on election night. Once pre-polls no longer required declaration envelopes, they became easier for voters to use, required an oral declaration of reason rather than ticking a category box on the envelope, and became cheaper and easier for electoral commissions to collect.

And as pre-poll voting became more popular, electoral commissions made it easier for voters to use pre-poll votes. It became a virtuous circle. Pre-poll was made easier to allow more people to vote, and as pre-poll voting became easier, so more people used it.

Changes for the 2020 Queensland Election

There is an important change to how postal and pre-poll voting will work in Queensland at the 2020 election compared to the 2017 state and 2019 Federal elections.

In 2020, Queensland voters have been permitted to apply for a postal vote before the writ for the election was issued. But an earlier cut-off for receipt of postal vote applications has also been implemented.

A voter must apply for a postal vote by 16 October, two weeks before the election. At Federal elections the cut-off is the Wednesday before polling day, but growing delays in postal delivery is making a late application cut-off impractical.

To date in 2020, more than 550,000 applications have been received. Not all of these postal votes will be completed and returned. As a comparison, around 300,000 postal votes were admitted to the count in 2017.

Voters who have applied for a postal vote can’t be sent the postal vote pack until after the close of nominations, which is this Sunday, 11 October. And only applications received in the week after the close of nominations will be sent postal vote packs.

The early postal vote application cut-off means that a greater proportion of postal votes will be completed and returned by polling day. Most returned postal votes will be pre-processed and be available to be counted on election night. The 2020 Queensland election result is less likely to be influenced by the late return of postal votes after election day because the earlier cut-off means more voters will have received, completed and returned their postal votes by polling day.

In Queensland, pre-poll voting will not start until Monday 19 October, that is after the cut-off date for postal vote applications. There are only two weeks of pre-poll voting where three weeks are allowed at Federal elections.

Most pre-poll votes will be counted on election night. Some won’t be. For instance, the number of Currumbin voters casting their ballot at the Mt Isa pre-poll centre will be very small. To ensure result reporting is secret, small bundle pre-polls will be accumulated from across the state into an ‘Other Pre-poll’ catgeory.

So for those thinking the surge in early voting means we won’t know the result on election night, think again. Most of the early votes will be counted on election night so we should know the result unless it is extremely close.

It might just take a little longer to know on the night. The smaller number of polling day ordinary votes will be quicker to count and report, but there will be a delay before the much larger pre-poll and postal counts are completed.

A generally forgotten point about Queensland election counts is that they generally report results more quickly than Federal or interstate election counts. There is no upper house election to complicate the counting process in Queensland.

The Political Impact of Postal and Pre-Pol Voting at the 2017 Queensland Election

Chart two below shows the two-party preferred percentage vote by vote type category at the 2017 Queensland election. The percentage in brackets on the left is the vote category type as a percentage of all votes cast.

Of ordinary votes cast on polling day, Labor’s two-party preferred vote was 53.7%. Once all voting was completed a fortnight later, Labor’s two-party preferred vote was down to 51.3%.

Labor’s two-party vote was only 47.9% with pre-poll votes, and 45.5% with postal votes.

In 2020, the number of ordinary votes will be well down on 2017. It may be this changes the difference in percentage votes by category compared to 2017. It may mean the polling day votes are even stronger for Labor, or it may mean the difference between polling day and early vote percentages will diminish. We won’t know until after the event.

It does mean early calls on election night may be risky. You can usually account for the early vote shift in making result projections, but big shifts in when people vote makes it difficult to be certain whether the same trend will emerge as in 2017.

As the pre-poll and postal votes will be counted on the night, we should know the result of the Queensland election on election night. But the early arrival of the small number of ordinary votes will raise the question of whether these vote are representative of where the count will finish once the postals and pre-polls are reported later in the evening.

A final note on first preferences by vote category

  • Labor polled 37.2% on polling day, 34.0% Absent, 33.3% Pre-poll and 32.3% Postal.
  • LNP polled 31.6% on polling day, 29.0% Absent, 36.1% Pre-poll and 40.7% Postal.
  • Greens polled 10.8% on polling day, 16.4% Absent, 7.6% Pre-poll and 8.1% Postal.
  • One Nation polled 13.2% on polling day, 13.5% Absent, 15.5% Pre-poll and 12.7% Postal.

Absent voting is much more common in urban seats as it is easier to drive out of an urban seat on polling day by accident, much harder to do so in a rural seat. By contrast, pre-poll and postal voting is more common in rural seats.

The urban concentration of Green support explains the big differences in Green support between absent, pre-poll and postal voting. And the rural concentration of LNP vote explains why its Absent percentage is low.