Is three weeks of early voting a bad thing?

Susan Price, Senate candidate for the Socialist Alliance, prepolling in Parramatta. Photo: Peter Boyle

With Election Day in sight, there was a palpable sense of relief at an inner west Sydney early voting booth where I had volunteered over the past few weeks. It feels like a long campaign.

The impact of the first ever three-week pre-poll has been a regularly occurring conversation. One view is that it is bad for “democracy”, and having the national population vote on the same day brings with it an equalising effect. Another view is that early voters may not take into account the latest policy announcement or budget statement — or even candidate disendorsement, of which there have been quite a few.

It is a challenge for all parties to find and organise volunteers to staff booths for three weeks. But is having party volunteers on hand for three weeks to explain policies and preferences a bad thing for democracy? I don’t think so.

Australian National University Professor Ian McAllister said these days . He and fellow researcher Damon Muller predict that about 5 million of the 16.4 million voters will vote early, and when postal votes are added to pre-poll votes more than 30%, possibly up to 40%, will have voted before May 18.

This is a growing trend: in 2007 about 8% voted early; in 2016 the early voters jumped to more than 22%. In , McAllister and Muller suggest that by the early 2020s half of all votes will be cast early.

There are many good practical reasons to pre-poll, including having to work on Saturday; having caring responsibilities; and being out of the electorate on the day and wanting to see a local how-to-vote. Older voters prefer not to queue, and those with a disability prefer maximum help without the stress.

But there are also more political reasons to vote early. As disenchantment with the major parties grow, people have begun to ignore the official election campaigning and are doing their own research on parties and their policies. They then arrive, some even with their own how-to-vote in hand, at the early polling booths to get the deed done.

Will the major parties stand to benefit from a longer early voting period because they can muster more resources than minor parties? Or will it be the minor parties with the most money that have greater ability to capitalise on the growing alienation from major parties?

Billionaire Clive Palmer, who has boasted he will be spending upwards of $55 million on his United Australia Party campaign, hopes to sway disillusioned and disengaged voters in regional Queensland. Other right-wing populist parties, such as Pauline Hanson's One Nation, can dip into their election reserves accumulated through electoral funding.

But while these same far-right parties have the funds for billboards, full-page newspaper ads and invasive text messages, they still cannot easily muster volunteers for early voting in the cities.

By contrast, the which, even detractors admit, is a genuine small party, has generated a good amount of volunteer help at early voting across NSW.

Having contested every federal election since 2001, with no corporate funding and facing a media blackout, volunteers report that the Socialist Alliance is becoming better known, both for its principled stands on critical policy issues and for its activists in union and social campaigns.

For us, three weeks of early polling is providing an important engagement and feedback experience. Our volunteers also report that many voters are confused about the voting system, and become swayed by the major parties’ urging them not to “risk” preferencing. But they also report more curiosity about our policies and views.

The current system privileges the major parties and other parties tied to powerful corporate interests. The raising of candidate deposits to $2000 (from $500 for House of Representatives candidates and $1000 per Senate candidate) extended that privilege. It was an anti-democratic change.

We need to be extended to the House of Representatives and a system of public funding that guarantees all contending parties and candidates an equal chance to present their platforms.

Meanwhile, depending on the result of the election, expect to hear from the major parties on why early polling should be limited. This would be a backward step as many are relying on early voting and their own research to make their vote count in a system which is far from a level playing field.

[Pip Hinman is a member of the Socialist Alliance in NSW.]