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The informal rate is rising, but more votes have been counted

June 3, 2019 - 08:00 -- Admin

After my post on Friday evening about turnout levels I’ve also done some further analysis into the rate of informal voting at the recent election.

While it is true that the informal rate has increased compared to the 2016 election, it is still lower than it was in either 2010 or 2013. And the increasing rate of enrolment means a larger proportion of the Voting Eligible Population (VEP) have cast a vote in 2019 than in any election in the last decade.

In the post below I’ve run through the key stats for formal voting and turnout over the last few elections, and look at a map showing the informal rate by seat.

I should clarify a few terms before I start:

  • Informal rate – Informal votes as a proportion of total votes
  • Voting Eligible Population (VEP) – Total population eligible to vote
  • Enrolment rate – Total roll as a proportion of VEP
  • Turnout – Total votes as a proportion of roll
  • Effective participation rate – Formal votes as a proportion of VEP

This table shows the relevant stats for every election since 2004. I was only able to find VEP for elections since 2010 so the first two elections have less data.

Election
Informal
Turnout
Enrolment
Votes / VEP
Effective Participation

2004
5.18
94.32

2007
3.95
94.76

2010
5.55
93.22
90.88
84.72
80.02

2013
5.91
93.23
92.45
86.19
81.10

2016
5.05
91.01
94.95
86.41
82.05

2019
5.51
90.89
96.84
88.02
83.17

In my last post I did explain how the turnout rate will likely be higher than in 2016, and that the proportion of VEP who have cast a vote has gone up significantly. But I hadn’t explored how this interacts with the informal rate, which had increased since 2016.

It turns out that the effective participation rate, which calculates what proportion of the eligible population has cast a formal vote, has continued to climb up year on year, increasing by about 1% per election, from 80% in 2010 to 83.2% in 2019 (and it should climb a little bit further by the end of counting).

While the informal rate has gone up slightly in 2019, it is still less than in either 2010 or 2013, and partly looks worse because 2016 had one of the lowest rates in the last two decades. With the exception of the big drop-off in informal votes in 2007, the informal rate has bounced around between 4.8% and 6% at every election since 2001.

Next up, this map shows the informal rate per electorate. The map can also be toggled to show how much the informal rate went up (red) or down (green) in each seat.

The informal rate went up in 90 seats, and down in 61. The trend was particularly bad in New South Wales (up in 77% of seats) and Western Australia (up in 88% of seats). The informal rate dropped in two thirds of seats in Victoria. This table shows the informal rate and the effective participation rate per state:

State
Informal
Informal change
Effective participation

NSW
7.00
0.83
83.11

VIC
4.63
-0.14
84.21

QLD
4.93
0.23
82.39

WA
5.40
1.40
80.85

SA
4.80
0.61
85.37

TAS
4.37
0.39
87.61

ACT
3.47
0.71
87.91

NT
4.68
-2.67
62.07

National
5.51
0.46
83.17

The informal rate is much higher in New South Wales than in any state. This is not a new thing: the leading explanations for this is the use of optional preferential voting in state elections and the larger non-English speaking populations in Western Sydney compared to similar populations in other states. The latter wouldn’t explain the increase, but it’s possible the closeness of the state and federal elections may have resulted in more informality.

Interestingly this higher informal rate doesn’t put New South Wales at the bottom of the pack when it comes to effective participation. Low enrolment rates and turnout rates in Queensland, Western Australia and particularly in the Northern Territory leads to much lower rates of effective participation in those three jurisdictions. In particular the NT stands out as a place with terrible participation rates despite a significant drop in informal rates.

The other factor which played into rates of informality in different seats is the number of candidates running. 10.7% of votes in Mallee were informal, which was up from less than 5% in 2016. This is surely explained by thirteen candidates running here, causing a significant splintering of the vote upon the retirement of the sitting member and a lot more votes simply not counting.

Of the ten seats with the biggest increase in informal rates, six were in New South Wales: two in Western Sydney, three on the north coast and one in far south-west.

We don’t yet know why people vote informal, but previous AEC analysis suggests about half of all informal votes have a clear first preference vote. I expect we’ll see similar results this time. Sure, some people deliberately vote informal as a protest, but many others attempt to cast a formal vote and fail to do so.

That’s not a problem under optional preferential voting, and I think it’s about time we do something to reform the system so voters aren’t required to fill out (potentially irrelevant) preferences to make their count. Sure, let’s encourage voters to number multiple preferences, but it’s immoral to throw out ballot papers with a clear intent to enforce the rule.