Australians cast RCV ballots in a House of Representatives election that’s too close to call

Posted by Sarah John on July 08, 2016

On Saturday July 2, Australians beelined to the polls to vote in the ranked choice voting (RCV) elections for their national legislature. Australia uses single-winner RCV to elect the 150 members of the House of Representatives, and multi-winner RCV to elect the Senate. Here, I give an overview of the campaign and the rise of early voting and voting by mail. In the coming weeks, FairVote will analyze Australia’s RCV results and report in more depth.

In the 2016 election, Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal – National Coalition was seeking a second term in office. The Australian Labor Party, the Opposition party led by Bill Shorten, hoped that voters would be persuaded by its “100 positive policies” and the alleged threat of Coalition cuts to the nation’s single-payer health care system. The election was an important one: it was in many ways a referendum on Turnbull’s ascension to power, as well as being a “double dissolution” election, in which all seats in the Australian Senate were up for election (usually half are elected every 3 years). The campaign was also a lengthy one… by Australian standards. It went on for a full eight weeks, longer than any election campaign since the 1960s.

In the aftermath of the election, it is taking a relatively long time for the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to count the ballots—which means that, in an election as tight as this one, it is unclear which party has a majority in the House of Representatives (and who, therefore, will be the Prime Minister and form government).

The delay is largely to do with the rise of convenience voting. In a nation where registration and voting is compulsory, and one in which more than 5% of the population lives overseas and many more are travelling, alternative voting arrangements like early voting, absentee voting, and voting by mail have long been common. The colony of Western Australia introduced voting by mail in 1877, with South Australia following in 1890.  In recent elections, convenience voting is getting more common, with around two in five of Australia’s 21 million voters taking it up. Around 29% of voters cast early ballots, significantly more than expected; and an estimated 10% of voters voted by mail.  An AEC official suggested the increase in early voting might be because "[i]t is school holidays, so people want to get it over and done with before they go away."

Absentee and vote by mail ballots are counted after Election Day. The AEC has done its initial counts of the early votes and is turning to votes cast by mail. However, the final count cannot be completed until after the 15th of July. This is the deadline for the return of mail ballots. It is set two weeks after the election so that voters in remote parts of the country and those overseas can have their voice heard.

In a close election, one in which the nation appears to have collectively sighed “Meh” to the two major party leaders’ campaigns, the widespread availability and use of convenience voting ensures that it takes a bit of extra time to make sure everyone’s voices are heard and to finalize the results in the highly competitive seats that will decide which party forms government.

 *Update: It now appears Turnbull will continue as Prime Minister, but it is unclear whether he will form a "majority government" or not. 

Image source: Bidgee, Wikimedia Commons.

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