By their very nature declaration votes present difficulties to electoral administrators. Declaration votes are made because the vote cannot be made in the normal way that is as an ordinary vote at a polling place. The processing of declaration votes from the initial application to the final counting of the ballot paper is a lengthy and costly process. The Commonwealth Electoral Act is quite prescriptive in setting out the procedures to be followed for the processing of declaration votes. Any increase in the number of declaration votes will add to the cost of elections and place continuing cost pressures on electoral authorities.
As well as being costly to administer the processing of declaration votes also takes time. There are delays inherent in the system that can lead to declaration votes not being counted till a number of days after polling day. In the case of postal votes, considerable time can elapse from the date of initial application by the elector till the counting of the ballot paper by the AEC. As the number of declaration votes increases it is not inconceivable that the election outcome itself could be delayed as declaration votes are received and counted. A feature of the Australian electoral system is that the election outcome is generally known on the night of the polling day. Any delays in knowing the election outcome would be a matter of concern to the electorate and place unwarranted pressure on the electoral authorities.
The increasing usage of postal voting may also have implications for the secrecy of the ballot. Postal votes are not cast in the same controlled environment as ordinary and other declaration votes. Ordinary and other declaration votes are cast in designated polling places where electoral officials can, for the most part, ensure the secrecy and integrity of the ballot. Because postal votes are cast beyond the purview of independent electoral officials there is scope for the secrecy of the ballot to be compromised.
The current legislation and practices for declaration voting have delivered a system that has produced increasing rates of apparent convenience declaration voting, a costly and time consuming administration process. If the current rate of increase in declaration voting is to be contained or reversed, then some or all of these issues may need to be considered. Some possible options to reform declaration voting are outlined below.
Since 1993 the AEC has recommended to the JSCEM that the Act be amended to allow pre-poll votes to be treated as ordinary votes rather than declaration votes if the pre-poll vote was cast in the elector's home division. This would mean that the elector's name would be immediately marked off the Certified List as having voted and there would be a reduction in the time delay associated with the processing of declaration votes and a reduction in the administrative load and costs associated with the issuing, sorting, and collating of declaration votes, and faster election results. Pre-poll ordinary voting for the home division is already in operation for Victorian state elections and Australian Capital Territory elections.
The JSCEM has rejected the recommendations from the AEC on the grounds that such a change would only encourage and endorse the trend towards an ever-increasing proportion of the vote being cast before polling day. It is difficult to see how a change in the administrative arrangements for pre-polls that are opaque to the elector would necessarily encourage a greater use of pre-poll voting. Under the proposal the requirements for applying for a pre-poll vote would be unchanged but the processing of that vote once it is issued would be made less complex.
Under current regulations electors who apply for a pre-poll or postal vote are required to sign a declaration to the effect that they are entitled to apply for a pre-poll or postal vote. Electors are asked to check the 'qualifications for an applicant' displayed on the form or in the pre-poll centre before they sign the declaration. They are not asked to specify which of the grounds they qualify under.
In its submission to the Inquiry into the conduct of the 1998 election, the AEC proposed that the requirements for electors applying for a postal vote be changed so that applicants are asked to indicate the reason they require a postal vote from a list of reasons permitted in the Act. The JSCEM supported this proposal and made a recommendation that it be extended to include pre-poll voting. In its response to the JSCEM report on the 1998 election, the Government stated that it does not believe that there is any justification at present for this requirement to be introduced.
It would be generally agreed that given the compulsory nature of voting in Australia, electors should be provided with a number of voting options. Under current legislation eligible electors may vote before polling day either by pre-poll or postal vote or outside their division on polling day by absent vote or by provisional vote.
While it is fundamental to the legitimacy of the electoral process in Australia that electors have a choice of voting options, such choice must be exercised within the legislative provisions. With the expansion of declaration voting opportunities, there has been a corresponding and significant increase in declaration voting at recent elections. It would appear that some of this increase is as a result of convenience voting, and as such is not in accordance with the spirit of existing legislative provisions governing declaration voting.
7 AEC, Australian Electoral Commission Submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters on the Conduct of the 1998 Federal Election, Australian Electoral Commission, Canberra, March 1999, Para.8.6.16
8 JSCEM 2000, Recommendation 21 p. 49