Beware of the Postal Vote Application Forms from Political Parties and Candidates
In the lead up to elections, you have probably received one or more officially-looking letters from political candidates containing a postal vote application form, especially if you live in a marginal seat electorate.
Besides the usual pre-election promises, the letter tells you that you have a right to vote by post. All you need to do is to fill the form with your personal details and return it in the included reply-paid envelope.
Now have look at the return envelope: do you see the address of the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC)? Most probably not. The envelope is addressed to your MP, or a political party candidate, or even some mysterious “Postal Vote Centre” or “Returning Officer” PO Box XXX to avoid rising voter’s alert by mentioning any names or parties. No mistake there. The current practice of political parties dispatching these letters and then receiving postal vote applications is not illegal. The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 permits political parties and candidates to distribute their own versions of postal vote application forms. However, this sneaky practice undermines and manipulates fair election in Australia, and, in order to maintain independent voting in a truly democratic country, it should not be permitted.
The most important rule in this situation:
If you do need to vote by post, always send your postal vote application directly to the AEC.
The AEC’s current address for postal forms is:
Australian Electoral Commission
Reply Paid 9867
[Your capital city]
(No stamp is needed if posted in Australia)
It may be wise to double-check on AEC website before sending.
Sending your forms to any other address may enable political self-interests to override democracy.
If it better and safer to vote on election day at your local polling place. If you are not going to be able to get to the polling place on election day, make use of the early vote option. You can vote in person at an early voting centre or any AEC divisional office in the weeks leading to an election to ensure that your personal information is safe and your voting right is not abused. Check the voting options on the AEC website.
Why mass mail-out of postal vote applications by political parties is dishonest and dangerous:
- It involves political parties in the postal voting application process and blurs the distinction between the participants in an election and its administrators, who are supposed to be independent.
- While parties are entitled to receive copies of the electoral roll and to communicate with electors, the inclusion of postal vote applications with the party campaign materials makes it look like the party has a special role in the course of the election, which may confuse people of certain cultural, linguistic or political backgrounds, and influence their vote.
- It inflates the percentage of postal voters beyond necessary (currently 6%, and growing!) and requires more resources and time to process the votes. People fill the postal vote application just because it is there, not because they really require it. The cost of processing a postal vote is 3–4 times higher than for an ordinary vote cast on election day or early vote in person, which means a greater tax money loss.
- If the form-sending candidate is an MP, the public has to pay for the whole form-printing and mailing enterprise. It is called electoral entitlements. And this means even more tax money is lost.
- It compromises the secrecy and integrity of the ballot, as the postal votes are cast in an uncontrolled environment.
- It invades people’s privacy and poses a threat to the safety of personal data. If an elector completes and posts an application distributed by a party, it would first go to the party mail centre where they collect the person’s details to use them later in any manner they like.
- After receiving your postal vote application, the party should forward the information to the AEC, for them to process it and send you the ballot papers. Why is it so complicated? Why can’t the middle man be cut out? The main parties have been resisting this change because it gives them a political advantage.
- Political parties exempted themselves from the Privacy Act, which means they can use your name, date of birth, phone number, email address, enrolled address, postal address, place of birth and signature in any way they like. They don’t have to keep it safe, tell you what personal information they have filed on you, or let you access your file.
- Federal and State Electoral Commissions regularly receive complaints from the voters who were confused about the origins of the postal vote applications they received, and those who didn’t notice the trap and were angered when they realised that they had handed their personal information over to a political party.
- Parties are encouraging people to cast postal votes, because in close elections, especially in marginal seats, a few manipulated votes could make a big difference. This solicitation to lodge postal votes has been a great success for the political parties: in 2010 election only 49% of applications were sent directly to the AEC. All others have passed through the hands of political parties, 98.7% of which came through the major parties.
- Only the large parties have enough taxpayer-funds, party resources, printing allowances and sophisticated elector databases to mass-mail postal vote applications to the enrolled voters. This disadvantages smaller parties and independent candidates and, again, undermines the true democracy.
- It increases the risk of corruption and fraud. When a completed postal vote application form returns, the name of the person can be checked against the party’s database (a violation of the secret ballot principle), and if their voting intention or issues of interest has been previously identified (via door-knocking, telephone calls, “we value your opinion” survey letters, personal interaction, etc), the party can decide on how promptly it may forward the form to the AEC, and thus manipulate whether the application makes it to AEC on time. Forwarding of a postal voting application to the AEC can be delayed if the person has been identified as a non-supporter.
- Often, the party postal vote application is the first information that an elector receives about the election by mail. If there is no information about other voting options, many electors —especially novice— may regard voting by post as a normal way of voting. Others would use the form as a convenience rather than because they really can’t come to a voting centre on election day. The ones genuinely unable to vote on election day could be left unaware of the early voting facilities.
Postal voting is an important option for those who are truly unable to reach a polling booth on election day, but it should be run by the independent Australian Electoral Commission, not by political parties who seek and use every advantage they can.
How can we stop all these?
Quite easily, actually:
- Use postal vote option only if you really need it.
- Make sure you are sending you postal vote application and/or electoral enrolment form directly to the AEC.
If nobody sends their filled forms to the parties, they will have stop this practice of invasion of people’s privacy, wasting taxpayers’ money and undermining the democracy under the disguise of “service to electors”.
First published: 7 August 2013. Last updated: 22 May 2016