A very Australian election: donkeys, dicks, and other informalities

In the 2016 Australian Federal Election, over 720,915 people (5.5% of all votes cast) voted informally. Of these, over half (377,585) had ‘no clear first preference’, meaning their vote did not contribute to the campaign of any candidate. This raises 3 main questions:

  1. What does it mean to lodge an ‘informal’ vote?
  2. Do these 377,585 votes matter?
  3. Why do people choose to vote informally?

The answer to each of these three questions yielded highly unexpected results.

What does it mean to lodge an ‘informal’ vote?

Short answer:
A vote is deemed ‘informal’ if it is not filled out in accordance with the requirements of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (the Electoral Act) and therefore cannot be included in the count of votes leading to the election result.

Long answer:
It’s complicated. The Australian Electoral Commission has 8 categories for classifying informal votes. The breakdown of informals in the 2016 Federal Election are shown below.

People that number their ballots incorrectly (25.4% or 183,183), or those that leave their entire ballot blank (24.9% or 179,243), make up about 50% of the informal votes cast in 2016. The third most common category of informals (19.8% or 142,933) was ‘scribbles, slogans and other protest vote marks’ — although not entirely accurate it is an interesting thought exercise to assume over 100,000 Australian adults woke up on 2 July 2016 and drew a dick on the ballot paper.

Do these 377,585 votes matter?

While it is a right for the voice of Australian adults to be heard in our democracy, some votes ‘speak’ more than others.

Doing the calculation of ‘if every informal vote with no clear first preference went to a single candidate in the tightest election, would it swing the result?’ is tempting, but a little useless in practice (for those interested the answer is an annoying ‘sometimes’).

A more useful question is ‘if we assume high informals counts are a relatively strong indication of voter dissatisfaction, how many people in the electorate did not vote (either through not showing up or not enrolling), and could this number summed with the informal count swing an election?’. The answer to this improved question is a resounding yes.

Why do people choose to vote informally?

People that vote informally are best classified into three buckets:

1) Those that chose to vote informally — commonly referred to as a ‘protest’ or ‘donkey’ vote (this is referred to by the AEC as ‘intentionally informal’).

2) Those that stuffed up the ballot paper so bad their vote was not counted (this is referred to by the AEC as ‘unintentionally informal — no clear first preference’).

3) Those that accidentally made an error, but who’s vote was still attributed to a candidate (this is referred to by the AEC as ‘unintentionally informal — clear first preference’).

For the first bucket, this is a personal, and unknowable question.

What these individuals are protesting is unknowable, however colloquially it is often thought of as either :
a) the democratic system,
b) their local selection of candidates on the ballot, or
c) the two most likely candidates for PM.

Regardless, by adding those ballots left blank (179,243 votes or 1.26% of all votes cast) and those with ‘scribbles, slogans and other protest vote marks’ (142,933 or 1% of all votes cast) you can assume that 2.26% of Australians were protesting *something*.

While we don’t know ‘what’ these people are protesting, we can gather a fair idea of ‘who’ the people that are protesting are. The AEC ran regressions using census variables against the ten highest informality divisions with assumed intentional informality.

While this analysis by the AEC is purely correlation, and should in no way be seen as causal, it will come as no surprise to anyone that the above regressions suggest female adults with jobs are not the culprits for dicks on ballot papers.

For the second bucket, there‘s three categories of ‘stuff ups’. A stuff up here is classed as those that wrote something on the ballot, but stuffed up so badly they did not make a first preference clear, meaning their vote did not go in any candidates pile. These categories are ‘ticks and crosses’, ‘other symbols’ (e.g. shading the boxes), and non sequential numbering (e.g. giving every candidate a 3). There was 34,410 votes in this categories combined. This is a fairly small proportion of votes overall. The AEC has tracked this category over time, and unsurprisingly it peaks in years where the voting system has changed.

For the third bucket, 343,330 people ‘got lucky’ in the sense they did not follow the instructions, however their vote was still counted.

The Northern Territory had the highest proportion of unintentionally informal votes (60.6% of all informal votes) out of any State or Territory. Due to the State having the lowest average level of formal education attainment, this suggests that communication on the ballot paper remains an issue.

Where to from here?

Policy makers, politicians, how to vote card designers (i.e. the party’s), and the AEC all need to do better.

Inconsistency between State and Territory Lower House elections and the Federal elections do not help in establishing a system where all votes can be heard. Should it be the case that ticks and crosses are *sometimes* acceptable in WA elections? Probably not.

For administrators, the first step to an improved system is understanding further why people voted unintentionally informal (how you round up those people and ask them is notable difficult).

For politicians, the first step to reducing informalities (and dicks along with it) is to provide a platform worth voting correctly for.


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