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FEATURE ARTICLE: TRENDS IN FEDERAL VOTER TURNOUT AND INFORMAL VOTING IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA
Voter turnout is a measure of the number of eligible voters who cast a ballot in any given election. As a form of political participation, the level of voter turnout in some instances can indicate a strong democracy and how representative governments are of the electorate, but can be a difficult measure to interpret. In terms of measuring progress it is perhaps more informative to consider the proportion of informal votes cast (ABS, 2010b).
Nevertheless, voter turnout for Australian federal elections is recorded for both houses of parliament which consists of the House of Representatives (HR) or the lower house, and the Senate (S) or the upper house. The legislative powers of both houses are nearly equal, however typically, it is the leader of the party (or coalition of parties) with a majority of members in the lower house, who is invited by the Governor-general to form government.
With compulsory voting in place, fines of between $20 and $50 can be issued to those who fail to vote without valid and sufficient reason (AEC 2008).
In the recent 2010 federal election, South Australian voter turnout was the third highest for both the House of Representatives and the Senate (93.8% and 94.3% respectively) of all states and territories, behind Tasmania (95.1% and 95.3%) and the Australian Capital Territory (94.6% and 94.9% ).
Voter turnout in South Australia for the 2010 election was lower than for the four preceding federal elections, in both houses of parliament. This means proportionally fewer South Australians who were enrolled to vote actually chose to vote in 2010.
With voter turnout consistently lower in the ballot for the House of Representatives, this will be the focus for the remainder of discussion throughout the article.
South Australia's Commonwealth Electoral Division level
When comparing voter turnout in the eleven South Australian CEDs applicable in the 2004, 2007 and 2010 federal elections, the CED of Adelaide has recorded one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the state. In 2010, voter turnout was 92.7%, down from 94.6% in 2007. The inner metropolitan CED of Adelaide spans 75 square kilometres from Grand Junction Road in the north to Cross Road in the south, and Portrush Road in the east to South Road in the west, including suburbs such as Kilburn, Northfield, Toorak Gardens, Norwood, Highgate, Clarence Park and Croydon Park (AEC 2011).
In 2004 and 2007, the CED of Boothby recorded voter turnout rates close to the states average. In the 2010 election however, the CED of Boothby recorded the lowest voter turnout (91.5%) and experienced the largest drop in turnout (down 4.2%) of all South Australian CEDs. The southern outer metropolitan CED of Boothby covers an area of 123 square kilometres. Some of the suburbs include Clarence Gardens, Urrbrae, Belair, Blackwood, Marion and Marino.
In the 2010 federal election, the CED of Barker continued its leading trend, recording the states highest voter turnout (95.1%). Barker covers over 60,000 square kilometres and contains the upper and lower South East up to the South Australian, Victorian and New South Wales borders, through to the Riverland, Murrayland and most of the Barossa Valley. Some of the towns include Berri, Kingston SE, Mount Gambier, Tailem Bend and part of Nuriootpa.
For a visual representation of the South Australian Commonwealth electoral boundaries used in the aforementioned elections, please refer to <http://www.aec.gov.au/Electorates/maps.htm>
Age may influence voter turnout, with electors in the younger (18-24 years) and older (70 years and over) age groups perhaps less likely to fulfil their elector obligations. Reasons for this may include ignorance or indifference towards the political process, or an incapacity to participate on the day. However, when examining AEC 2010 elector count data for South Australia by division and age group, the evidence appears mixed.
The CEDs of Hindmarsh and Sturt recorded mid to high levels of voter turnout overall, yet had the two highest combined proportions of electors in these age groups (18-24 years and 70 years and over) with 29.8% and 29.0% respectively.
The CEDs of Kingston and Makin, both with high levels of voter turnout (94.6% and 94.3% respectively), had some of the highest proportions of younger electors (11.4% and 11.2%), and the lowest proportion of older electors (12.2% and 12.5%). In comparison, the CED of Adelaide comprised similar proportions of younger (10.7%) and older electors (14.5%) as Kingston and Makin, yet recorded the second lowest voter turnout (92.7%) in the state.
Furthermore, the CEDs of Sturt and Boothby had contrasting voter turnout levels; Sturt with higher (94.2%) and Boothby with the lowest (91.5%) despite having very similar proportions of younger (10.8% and 10.6% respectively - mid to high levels relatively) and older electors (18.1% and 18.4% respectively - high levels relatively).
From the above analysis it appears that age is not a strong determinant of voter turnout.
While age alone appears an inconclusive determinant to voter turnout, what about a person's level of education? Is this likely to impact on their decision to vote? Using 2006 Census data it is possible to examine the proportion of persons aged 18 years and over in each CED who fall within the education levels of bachelor degree and above and no non-school qualification. However, these education levels can only be considered indicative of those that may have been present at the 2010 federal election.
In 2006, the CED of Barker comprised the highest proportion of persons aged 18 years and over with no non-school qualification (57.7%), and one of the lowest proportions with a bachelor degree or above (6.8%). Overall voter turnout for Barker in the 2010 election, was the highest in the state (95.1%).
In contrast, the CED of Adelaide had the lowest proportion of persons aged 18 years and over with no non-school qualification (40.2%) and the highest proportion with a bachelor degree or above (27.0%). Voter turnout in the 2010 election was the second lowest in the state (92.7%).
Similarly, the CED of Boothby which recorded South Australia's lowest voter turnout in 2010 (91.5%), had generally higher levels of educational attainment in 2006, with 41.5% of persons aged 18 years and over with no non-school qualification and 22.7% with a bachelor degree or above.
Although these levels of educational attainment - based on 2006 Census data - can only be considered indicative of those present in the 2010 federal election, it would suggest that CEDs with generally higher levels of educational attainment had a lower voter turnout than CEDs with lower levels of educational attainment.
An person's English proficiency could also influence whether they vote or not based on their understanding of the electoral process.
In 2006, the South Australian divisions with the highest proportions of persons aged 18 years and over who spoke little or no English were the CEDs of Port Adelaide (6.7%), Adelaide (4.0%) and Sturt (3.7%). Those with lower proportions included Mayo (0.3%), Grey (0.6%) and Kingston (0.6%).
When examining the three CEDs with the highest proportions of persons aged 18 years and over with poor English proficiency, their respective voter turnout levels for the 2010 election were varied and contrasting. The CED of Port Adelaide had voter turnout in the mid range (93.4%); close to the state's average. The CED of Adelaide recorded voter turnout which was at lower levels (92.7%), and the CED of Sturt had voter turnout at higher levels (94.2%).
Furthermore, when considering the CED of Boothby with the state's lowest 2010 voter turnout (91.5%), it represented one of the CEDs with the lowest proportions of persons aged 18 years and over who spoke little or no English.
PROPORTION OF PERSONS(a) IN CED(b)(c) WHO DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH WELL OR AT ALL, South Australia - 2006
Based on this analysis, voter turnout in South Australian CEDs during the 2010 federal election does not appear to have been affected by age or English proficiency. CEDs with higher proportions of younger and older electors, or persons who spoke little or no English did not show low voter turnout. Analysis of educational attainment showed that CEDs with higher proportions of persons aged 18 years and over with bachelor degrees or above had lower voter turnout in 2010.
In Australia, an 'informal vote' is one in which the ballot paper is completed incorrectly and is not included in the final count. There are several reasons a ballot paper may be rendered informal (AEC 2003). Factors that exert an influence on the informal vote in Australia include confusion over differing state and federal electoral systems and their proximity to one another, political and electoral knowledge, and literacy skills (AEC 2003). It is also possible that some voters deliberately spoil their ballot paper as a form of protest, although the extent and motivations for this are largely untracked.
Similar to voter turnout, there is typically some fluctuation between informal voting levels at each federal election, as can be seen in the graph below. This demonstrates how single electoral events can be affected by unique political, social, economic and electoral factors (AEC, 2003). Differences between state informal voting levels are more likely due to differing electoral voting systems, while differences between a state's CEDs may be due to sociological factors such as age, educational attainment and English proficiency.
The introduction of Group Ticket Voting (GTV) in the 1984 federal Senate election, allowing voters to simply place the number '1' in one of the boxes above the line, saw informal voting levels in the Senate fall dramatically. Since this time, informal voting rates for the House of Representatives have overtaken informal voting in the Senate (Young & Hill, 2009).
South Australia's informal vote in the House of Representatives jumped from 2.7% in 1983 to 8.2% in 1984, becoming the highest in the nation. South Australia held this 'leading' position over six subsequent elections up until and including the 2001 election
From the graph below, the proportion of informal votes varies slightly across the states and territories, however, the overall series pattern is closely followed, with the 2007 election recording the lowest proportion of informal votes and the 2010 election recording the highest, with the exception of South Australia and Western Australia. For the 2010 election, South Australia shared the third highest (5.5%) level of informal votes along side Queensland, and behind New South Wales (6.8%) and the Northern Territory (6.2%).
South Australia's Commonwealth Electoral Division level
The CED of Port Adelaide recorded the highest proportion of informal votes in both the 2007 and 2010 federal elections with 5.0% and 7.2% respectively. Port Adelaide has typically recorded higher levels of informal voting over the years, with levels considerably higher than those in the CED of Mayo which had the lowest proportion of informal voting in both 2007 and 2010 (2.8% and 4.6% respectively).
The impact of age on informal voting levels can be assessed by comparing the proportion of electors in each CED who fall within the younger (18-24 years) and older (70 years and over) age groups. Comparing the CEDs of Port Adelaide and Mayo, which recorded the states highest and lowest informal voting levels respectively in the 2010 election, both have very similar compositions of younger (10.7% and 10.0% respectively) and older electors (14.1% and 14.6% respectively).
In addition, the CED of Boothby which had one of the state's highest proportions of electors from both age groups (28.9%) in the 2010 election, recorded informal voting levels identical to that of the CED of Mayo (4.6%). This would suggest that age has no perceptible bearing on informal voting levels for the aforementioned CEDs.
Based on 2006 Census data the CED of Port Adelaide, with the state's highest levels of informal voting in 2010, had a relatively high proportion of persons aged 18 years and over with no non-school qualification (55.9%), and a low proportion of persons with a bachelor degree or above (8.6%).
The CED of Mayo on the other hand, with the state's lowest levels of informal voting had a relatively low proportion of persons aged 18 years and over with no non-school qualification (44.9%) and a high proportion of persons with a bachelor degree or above (15.6%).
Furthermore, both the CEDs of Adelaide and Boothby, which had higher proportions of persons aged 18 years and over with a bachelor degree or above, had relatively lower levels of informal voting for both the 2007 and 2010 elections (2007 - 3.1%, 2010 - 4.8% and 2007 - 2.9%, 2010 - 4.6% respectively).
This suggests CEDs with relatively higher proportions of persons aged 18 years and over with no non-school qualification are more likely to record higher levels of informal voting than CEDs with relatively higher proportions of persons with bachelor degrees or above.
From the 2006 Census the CED of Port Adelaide showed considerably higher levels (6.7%) of persons aged 18 years and over who do not speak English well or at all, and in 2010 recorded the state's highest level of informal voting (7.2%). In contrast, the CED of Mayo which had a low proportion (0.3%) of persons aged 18 years and over who do not speak English well or at all, recorded the state's lowest level of informal voting. Results within these two extremes were less conclusive however.
From the above analysis it appears that level of educational attainment and English proficiency may have affected informal voting rates for the House of Representatives at the 2010 federal election.
From the above analysis it appears that in South Australia for the 2010 federal election, the age of electors did not have an impact on voter turnout or informal voting. Educational attainment and English proficiency did appear to have an impact. There are of course other factors that impact on voter turnout and an elector's propensity to vote informally, including other more complex political, social and economic factors.
ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2006, Census of Population and Housing, ABS, Canberra
ABS 2010b, Democracy, governance and citizenship, in Measures of Australia's Progress, 2010, cat. no. 1370.0, ABS, Canberra
AEC (Australian Electoral Commission), 2003, Research Report Number 1, Informal Vote Survey, House of Representatives 2001 Election, AEC, Canberra, <http://www.aec.gov.au/About_AEC/Publications/Strategy_Research_Analysis/paper1/index.htm>, last viewed 04 May 2011.
AEC 2006, Compulsory Voting in Australia, AEC, Canberra, <http://www.aec.gov.au/About_AEC/Publications/voting/index.htm>, last viewed 04 May 2011.
AEC 2008, Electoral Offences, AEC, Canberra, <http://www.aec.gov.au/Elections/australian_electoral_system/electoral_procedures/Electoral_Offences.htm>, last viewed 10 May 2011.
AEC 2009, Research Report Number 11, Analysis of Informal Voting, House of Representatives 2007 Election, AEC, Canberra, <http://www.aec.gov.au/About_AEC/Publications/Strategy_Research_Analysis/paper_11/index.htm>, last viewed 16 May 2011.
AEC 2010a, Compulsory Voting, AEC, Canberra, <http://www.aec.gov.au/Voting/Compulsory_Voting.htm>, last viewed 04 May 2011.
AEC 2010b, The Official 2010 Federal Election Results, AEC, Canberra, <http://results.aec.gov.au/15508/Website/default.htm>, last viewed 04 May 2011.
AEC 2010c, Annual Report 2009-2010, AEC, Canberra,<http://www.aec.gov.au/About_AEC/Publications/Annual_Reports/>, last viewed 04 May 2011.
AEC 2011, Current federal electoral divisions, AEC, Canberra, <http://www.aec.gov.au/profiles/index.htm>, last viewed 10 May 2011.
Louth J, and Hill L, 2005 Compulsory Voting: Turnout with and without it , Australian Review of Public Affairs, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 25-37.
Young S, and Hill L, 2009, Uncounted votes: informal voting in the house of representatives as a marker of political exclusion in Australia, The Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. 55, Issue 1, pages 64-79.
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