29 February 2024
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AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

AEC is handling Aston well

Malcolm Mackerras
29 March 2023

My political assessment of next Saturday’s Aston by-election was given on 14 February in my article “Aston is blue ribbon Liberal”.  It contained this prediction: “The woman the Liberal Party chooses to be its candidate will win the by-election.” The Liberal Party has, indeed, chosen a woman, Roshena Campbell, and my instinct tells me to stick to my prediction that she will win next Saturday. I have noticed that other pundits have started to express doubts about this – but I’ll stay with my original view.

Since there is no further reason at this stage to give a political comment, I have decided to revert to a hobby horse of mine, ridden since 2016. I have been very critical of the way in which the Australian Electoral Commission has been handling federal general elections. “That line of criticism reached its peak in my article posted in Switzer Daily on 13 July last year. It was titled “A challenge to my critics about the AEC”. It was introduced by the same photograph as introduces this article today. That photo showed the voting rules for both houses and encouraged the deceit on Senate voting, which I discuss below.

In respect of the federal general elections of July 2016, May 2019 and May 2022 polling officials hired on a temporary basis on polling day were instructed to give each voter a little lecture (or spiel, if you like) which went like this, as each official handed two ballot papers to the voter: “For the House of Representatives you need to number every box. For the Senate above-the-line vote you need to number at least six boxes and for the Senate below-the-line vote you need to number at least 12 boxes.”

My characterisation of the above has been (and continues to be) that the AEC hired these officials on the basis that every voter was to be told one truth and two lies. The truth related to the House of Representatives vote. For that you do need to number every square. If you don’t obey the instructions your vote is not counted. It finds its way into the pile of “informal” votes.

The two lies relate to the Senate vote. Contrary to what the Electoral Commissioner writes in the official “education” of voters you do not need the number six squares above the line - because the expression of a single first preference for a party above the line is required by law to be counted as a formal vote. Likewise, contrary to what the Electoral Commissioner says, the voter does not need to number 12 squares below the line because it is required by law that six squares numbered consecutively for candidates are counted as a formal vote.

Next Saturday outside every polling place in Aston there will be a poster that looks like this:

Of course, I commend that poster. There will be five candidates next Saturday, but this poster is shown for every by-election, and thus is used when it is unknown how many candidates there will be. It is the same as that used for the House of Representatives vote in a federal general election.

When the voter goes into the booth, he/she will see this sign:

I have been objecting vehemently to that for Senate elections because the instructions are deceitful. Its placing for a federal election is disgraceful. But next Saturday I have no objection to that sign being in place everywhere because reading the instructions saves the voter from casting a vote that might be rejected as informal.

When the polling official next Saturday tells the voter: “You need to number every box” that polling official is helping that voter to cast a formal vote. Therefore, I approve. I have no doubt that the informal vote will be very low. My main thought is that I am glad the first by-election during the 47th Parliament is to be held in Victoria and not in New South Wales. In Victoria the voting rules are identical between those for the state Legislative Assembly and for the federal House of Representatives.

For NSW last Saturday, the Legislative Assembly ballot paper instructions were: “Write the number 1 in the square next to the candidate of your choice. You can show more choices, if you want to, by writing numbers in other squares, starting with the number 2.” Next Saturday in Aston the ballot paper instructions will read: “Number the boxes from 1 to 5 in the order of your choice” and at the bottom it will read “Remember. . .Number every box to make your vote count.”. If that were in New South Wales, the informal vote would likely be five times what it will turn out to be.

Finally, a piece of pedantry. If there were a vote going 1 Maya Tesa (Independent), 2 Angelica Di Camillo (Greens), 3 Roshena Campbell (Liberal), 4 Mary Doyle (Labor) and left unmarked the top box for Owen Miller that box would be deemed to be the voter’s fifth and last preference. The vote would be formal but would ultimately help In Campbell’s election. That is due to a “vote savings” provision in the legislation.


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