Beware of postal vote application forms sent by political parties and candidates
In the lead up to an election, you have probably received one or more official-looking letters from political candidates containing a postal vote application form. Besides the usual pre-election promises, these letters tell you that you can 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.
Sounds easy and convenient, but don't rush yet! Have a closer look at the return envelope. Does it have the address of the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) or the Electoral Commission of your state or territory? Most likely, it doesn't. These envelopes are usually addressed to your MP, a political party candidate, or even some mysterious “Postal Vote Centre” or “Returning Officer” at PO Box XXX to avoid mentioning any names or parties and risking to raise the voter's suspicion. Unfortunately, this practice of political parties dispatching such letters and then receiving postal vote applications may be improper and detrimental, but unfortunately not illegal. The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 permits political parties and candidates to distribute their own versions of postal vote application forms, which sadly creates an avenue for manipulating Australian elections. So, since the law provides no protection, to maintain fair elections and independent voting in a truly democratic country, Australian voters need to be aware of the implications of this practice and avoid it whenever possible.
How to Vote Safely
It is safer to vote on the election day at your local polling place, or, if you are unable to get to the polling place on the day, use the early vote option that lets you vote in person at an early voting centre or electoral divisional office in the weeks before the election. This will ensure that your personal details are not passed through third parties and your voting rights are not abused. Check the AEC or your state/territory EC website for the voting options.
If you do need to vote by post, always send your postal vote application directly to the relevant Electoral Commission. For example, for postal voting in federal elections, by-elections and referendums the AEC address is:
Australian Electoral Commission
Reply Paid 9867
[Your capital city]
No stamp is required if posted within Australia.
For up-to-date address information, check the AEC contact page and postal voting FAQ. For state, territory and local government elections, check their sites: NSW, Vic, Qld, WA, SA, Tas, ACT, NT
In recent years, the electoral authorities began moving away from paper forms and push toward online enrolment via website forms and online uploads of scanned paper documents. In this case, the person usually has to give their email address and/or mobile phone number, thus creating a potential for becoming a victim of online, sms or phone call scam (a person who has never given their email or phone number to the electoral authorities would know that any contact claiming to be from EC is fraudulent). If you want to protect the privacy and security of your contact details, do a thorough search on the relevant electoral site for paper options, or call them and ask how to enrol, change your address, or apply for postal voting without filling any online forms and giving email or phone numbers. Offline options do exist, but they can be well hidden.
Danger to Democracy and Privacy
Mass mail-out of postal vote applications by political parties and candidates should be ignored and left without response. Sending your forms to any address that does not belong to the AEC or a state/territory EC may enable political self-interests to override democracy, and even lead to misuse of your personal data, because:
- It involves political parties in the voting process and blurs the distinction between the participants in an election and its administrators, who, by law, are supposed to be independent.
- It inflates the percentage of postal voters beyond necessary, 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 need it. The cost of processing a postal vote is 3–4 times higher than for an ordinary vote cast in person, which means an unnecessary loss of taxpayer money.
- It leads to a further spending of taxpayer funds: if the form-sending candidate is an MP, the taxpayers pay for the whole form-printing and mailing enterprise. This is called “electoral entitlements”, which are the funds allocated from the budget to political parties proportionally to the size of each party.
- It compromises the secrecy and integrity of the ballot, as the postal votes are cast in an uncontrolled environment.
- It jeopardises 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 can collect the person's details and use them later in any manner they like. 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 any other data you filled in any way they wish. They are not obliged to keep it safe, or tell you what personal information they have filed on you, or let you access your file.
- It disadvantages smaller parties and independent candidates and further undermines democracy, because 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.
- It increases the risk of corruption and fraud. When a completed postal vote application form is returned, the name of the person can be checked against the party's database (a violation of the secret ballot principle), and if their voting intentions 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 will forward the form to the Electoral Commission, and thus manipulate the chances of the application's arrival to its destination in time. While the parties are obliged to forward your application to the EC, they can easily delay it if you have been identified as a non-supporter.
- Political parties may encourage people to cast postal votes because in close elections, especially in marginal seats, a few manipulated votes can make a huge difference. This solicitation to lodge postal votes has been a great success for the parties: in 2010 election only 49% of applications were sent directly to the AEC. The rest have passed through the hands of political parties, 98.7% of which came through the major parties.
- Often, the party postal vote application is the first information that an elector receives about the upcoming election. If there is no information about other voting options, some 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. And those genuinely unable to vote on the election day could be left unaware of the early voting facilities.
- 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 some people and influence their vote.
- Federal and State Electoral Commissions regularly receive complaints from the voters who were confused about the origins of the postal vote applications they received. Those who didn't see the trap, were angered when they realised that they had handed their personal information over to a political party.
- If after receiving your postal vote application the party has to forward the information to the EC, for the EC to process it and send you the ballot papers, then why not get rid of the middle man? The main parties have been resisting this change because it gives them a political advantage.
Postal voting is an important option for those who are genuinely unable to reach a polling booth, but it should be run by the independent Electoral Commission, not by political parties who seek and use every advantage they can.
You Can Make a Difference
When enough people become aware of the problem and its consequences, and stay vigilant, the spam-like unsolicited postal vote application political trickery will be thwarted. To make a difference:
- Use the 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 or a state/territory EC.
- Warn others about this issue.
If nobody sends their filled forms to the parties, they will have to stop this practice of invasion of people's privacy, wasting taxpayer money, and undermining democracy under the guise of a “service to electors”.