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Informal Votes Tell of a Doubly Disillusioned Electorate

This election voters have shown their dissatisfaction with the choice of politicians with a 40 percent rise in the proportion of informal votes. The tide of disillusionment is strongest in NSW Labor seats, but the increase applies across all seats. In fact, the swing in informal votes is far, far bigger than the swing in primary votes to the Liberal Party.

It's been a surprising election. A 5 percent swing against the Labor Party, a 4 percent swing to the Greens, the likelihood of a hung parliament --- these are signs of an unhappy electorate. But the rise in informal votes is the biggest sign that people are displeased with both sides of politics. 5.6 percent of voters spoilt their ballot paper.

Overseas readers might be amazed that in this part of the world you have to vote, or face a fine, possibly even a prison sentence. Democracy is so important here, we'll even lock you up if you don't take part.

On TV recently disgruntled former federal Labor Leader Mark Latham suggested voters send a message to the major parties by leaving their voting forms blank. Turn up to avoid the fine, just don't fill it in. It's what's classified as an informal vote and it's nothing to do with your dress sense. Some, including former Liberal Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, criticised Latham for his suggestion, but guess what, we've been doing it for years. Either that, or there's a sizeable proportion of the population who aren't very good at numbering boxes.

With the exception of the 2007 election, at the height of Rudd-mania, the informal vote has steadily been on the rise from one election to the next. This weekend's fiasco of an election saw the informal vote 75 percent higher than it was in 1996. In NSW and Queensland it's more or less doubled.

This chart shows the informal vote for the last six elections, and the graph shows the three states with the biggest rise this time round. It seems the performance of the Queensland and NSW state Labor parties has discouraged many people from voting federal Labor, but they are not prepared to go for a Liberal candidate. A vote for the Greens, seen by some as a form of protest vote, invariably gets passed to Labor on a two-party preferred basis. If you don't want that to happen, what choice have you got but to spoil your ballot paper?

The NSW Labor Effect

In the 2007 election the 13 electorates with the highest level of informal votes were all Labor seats in NSW, again a sign of dissatisfaction with the state Labor party. Back then Blaxland had the most disenfranchised voters --- 9.5 percent lodged an informal vote. This time, they still lead, but the figure has risen to an astonishing 14.2 percent. That's well over twice the vote for the Green Party's candidate.

The same pattern applies this time round only more so. 14 ALP seats top the list. Again, they're all in NSW. The Sydney seat of Bennelong swung to the Liberals, but one wonders whether the 3.9 percent swing away from Maxine McKew would have happened if 5.8 percent of voters hadn't lodged an informal vote.

One slight word of caution --â€" all these figures are based on statistics gathered with just 78 percent of votes counted. Postal votes might soften the figures a little, but there's certainly an unhealthy trend developing.

And dissatisfaction isn't the exclusive domain of Labor electorates. Whilst informal votes in seats won by Labor have risen from 5 percent to 6.4 percent, there's been a similar increase in Coalition held seats (rising from 3.6 percent to 5 percent). Across the board the swing to informal votes is 1.69 percent. To put things in perspective, that's more than two and half times the swing in first preferences to the Liberal party.

Clearly, no-one is in a position to claim a mandate from the people this time round.

See also:

Fixing Up Democracy | BTalk

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