How people elect parliaments
The Australian electoral roll has surged to its highest and most complete level ever, in time for the planned national survey of views on marriage equality scheduled to commence in a few weeks’ time.
Political analysts have been watching the enrolment numbers for any implications for the outcome of the proposed postal survey of the nation on views about whether same sex couples should be entitled to marry.
Australia’s electoral roll system creates a comprehensive and near-complete listing of the nation’s eligible voters, compared to many other nations.
New enrolments, removals due to deaths, and alterations to addresses and other personal details occur constantly. But updates provided by voters themselves typically surge in the weeks proceeding national and state elections.
The total of the national roll stood at 15.671 million voters in May 2016, in time for the July 2016 national elections. The end-of-month figure at 31 July 2017 had steadily crept up to 15.919 million, indicating a ‘normal’ growth rate of around 17,000 people per month.
State elections also cause enrolment surges, but during the past year only Western Australia has seen a state election.
According to a statement from the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), the surge for the coming postal survey – which may or may not even happen pending a dispute in the nation’s High Court – has resulted in more than 98,000 new enrolled voters in around three weeks, taking the national roll over the 16 million mark (16.006 million) for the first time.
The AEC also estimates that the completeness of the roll almost certainly the highest level ever, although it is yet to publish a precise final estimate.
Same-sex marriage postal survey campaigns – particularly those for the ‘Yes’ case – have mounted major enrolment drives in the weeks leading up to the recent cut-off date.
Many political commenters speculate that the new voters are disproportionately young people, and are more inclined to support same-sex marriage.
The AEC advises that 65,000 of the new electors aged 18-24. However quite naturally, 18-20-year old Australians always make up a disproportionate share of new enrolments, compared to older first-time enrollees or new citizens.
In addition, identifying numbers in age groups thought to be pro-marriage equality is not conclusive that one side of the debate is better at getting its supporters enrolled. There would need to be some demonstration that the surge population of new voters was different in demographic profile – not merely larger in scale – than the regular monthly growth in the roll numbers.
In any case, recent opinion polls all indicate that a clear majority of Australians not only support same sex marriage, but also intend to participate in the proposed survey, if it goes ahead. Indeed, vigour of voting intention appears to be higher among supporters of the Yes position.
The principle of marriage equality is polling in the majority among supporters of every major political party. Religious Australians also indicate a majority support, although at noticeably lower levels (mid-50% rates) than among non-religious Australians (above 70%).
It is difficult to make meaningful comparisons between the recent enrolment surge and past election-time surges, although the 2017 ‘survey surge’ is at least comparable to an ordinary election surge.
Comparing changes in enrolment rates based on estimates of eligible voters is also difficult going back before the beginning of the current decade, due to the improvements made in recent years to electoral role management.
Australia’s electoral authorities maintain one of the most comprehensive systems of electoral enrolment in the world.
In the United States only around 2/3rds of eligible voters are thought to be registered to vote, with rules and results varying greatly between the states. Britain has only recently moved to establish comprehensive electoral registration.
Electoral enrollment has been compulsory in Australia for over a century. In the past decade the long-established system of updating of roll information by individuals has been enhanced by automatic data revisions based on key citizen interactions with government agencies.
In recent years the AEC has also been estimating the size of the enrolment register in comparison to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) census data for the estimated total number of eligible voters across the nation, and within each electoral division.
After the 2010 election saw electoral turnout fall below 90% of enrolments for the first time since the 1920s, the then government enhanced the roll maintenance system with greater automatic updating, following earlier improvements to the state databases in New South Wales and Victoria.
The AEC estimated that at the 2016 election, a record 95.0% of possible eligible voters were on the roll. At their latest quarterly update – June 2017 – this estimate had edged up to 95.1%. The Commission now believes that the total exceeds 93.3% of eligible numbers, but has not yet finalized a figure.
Just 3 of the nation’s 150 federal electoral divisions – the outback areas of Durack (in northern Western Australia) and Lingiari (making up the bulk of the Northern Territory) and – curiously – the inner-urban division of Melbourne (a major university location) are currently estimated to have enrolment rates below 85% of those eligible.
(Cover image: Australians queueing to vote at an Antarctic base – Australian Electoral Commission website).