The other day I discovered that according to the AEC, you’re still supposed to have a valid reason for voting early (whether in person or via postal vote) and not just voting on election day. Officially you’re allowed to vote early if you:1
- are outside the electorate where you are enrolled to vote
- are more than 8km from a polling place
- are travelling
- are unable to leave your workplace to vote
- are seriously ill, infirm or due to give birth shortly (or caring for someone who is)
- are a patient in hospital and can’t vote at the hospital
- have religious beliefs that prevent you from attending a polling place
- are in prison serving a sentence of less than three years or otherwise detained
- are a silent elector
- have a reasonable fear for your safety or wellbeing.
I was genuinely surprised to find out that eligibility is technically so restrictive. According to Antony Green’s blog , 32.5% of votes cast in the last election in 2019 were pre-poll (early) votes, and this year is on track to surpass that number despite early voting opening a whole week later. In my electorate, over 41% of people have already voted, or at least requested a postal vote. The good news is that early voting is basically on an honour system – I mean, can you imagine the AEC trying to chase up literally millions of voters to determine whether they had a good enough reason to vote early? What a bad use of resources that would be.
It does seem, though, that this is the kind of thing which should still be officially changed. It seems like the AEC is quite wedded to the idea of Election Day as a “civic holiday” of sorts where everyone engages in democracy together, but I don’t think the Australian people are so wedded to the idea. My own gut feeling is that it would make more sense to distribute the load of millions of voters across a two-week period (or even longer, why not?) rather than trying to have everyone come up and queue all on one day… and especially so during a pandemic. You want people waiting in long queues and crowded halls with some unknown percent of them having Covid and perhaps not even aware of it? That just doesn’t seem ideal to me.
This article on the SBS News website makes the argument that not wanting to contract Covid in that kind of environment is a valid reason to vote early:
A reasonable fear for your safety is another reason to vote early, which includes a fear of contracting COVID-19.
Indeed, there are some people who are going to be disenfranchised this year because they caught Covid at the exact wrong time. This ABC article goes into it, but basically, only those who tested positive for Covid after 6pm on Tuesday are eligible to vote by phone call (a service which is seems highly resource-intensive for the AEC to run). Those who tested positive between Saturday and Tuesday 6pm were required to apply for a postal vote, but the AEC advised that they were unlikely to arrive in time for people to complete them. (You’re required to mail them off before election day, even though they’ll still count them if they arrive within two weeks afterwards.) Plus, some people were told by an AEC rep that they could vote by phone even if their positive test result came before 6pm Tuesday, and were not advised that that first rep was wrong until after the deadline. And even if people received their postal votes in time, the postal vote process requires someone to witness you putting your ballot in the envelope and certify that it was indeed you that did it, which is a requirement that someone isolating and living alone cannot meet.
Now the AEC isn’t enforcing this 6pm Tuesday deadline out of capriciousness – they’re required to by the law that expanded the telephone voting program in the first place (originally it was mainly for Australian scientists stationed in Antarctica). It’s still going to have a disenfranchising effect, though, on a number of people who really wanted to vote. The AEC’s statement that those people will have a valid explanation for not voting and thus escape the $20 fine you’d usually get for that isn’t really satisfactory. I myself got disenfranchised because of restrictions on early voting in the 2014 Victorian election, and I’m still annoyed about it 😛
But I also think that if there wasn’t this pressure on people to wait until Election Day to vote, then some number of those people might’ve voted earlier during the early voting period and thus already have got their votes out of the way with before later falling sick. I mean, haven’t we all tried explaining to a teacher that we couldn’t do our homework because we got sick the night before, and had the teacher counter unsympathetically with “that’s why you don’t leave your homework until the night before”? People who did leave their homework/voting to the night before/day of still deserve the ability to make it right via some kind of provision, obviously (I’m not saying poor planners deserve to be disenfranchised…) just that it should be officially acceptable to get the homework/voting done well ahead of time. Official advice to get your vote in early just in case you contract Covid in the last week of the campaign would’ve been easier than publicising deadlines for these emergency provisions.
I suspect politicians, and maybe the Canberra Press Gallery, don’t like early voting because it counters their idea of how a campaign is “supposed” to run – like if a gaffe in the final week means nothing because most people voted already. I just don’t really care, TBH. Early voting makes it easier for people to fit voting into their lives. Most people aren’t really swing voters, anyway, and already know long before Election Day who they’re going to vote for. For that minority who decide at the last minute, well – they still could even if early voting eligibility was opened up entirely. I know it’s already on an honour system, but if anything that makes it even sillier that they don’t open it up entirely. Come on, guys 😛