AEC Electoral Research Forum 2012

Updated: 5 April 2013

"Democratic health, Electoral engagement and Stakeholders"

The AEC Electoral Research Forum was held on 19 and 20 November 2012 to explore issues around participation, engagement and enrolment in Australian elections. Forum participants included:

  • Dr Aaron Martin (University of Melbourne)
  • Dr Ariadne Vromen (University of Sydney)
  • Antony Green (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
  • Hon Bronwyn Bishop MP
  • Daryl Melham MP
  • Professor David Farrell (University College Dublin)
  • Dennis Shanahan (News Ltd)
  • Ed Killesteyn (Australian Electoral Commission)
  • Professor Ian McAllistar (Australian National University)
  • Professor Jim Macnamara (University Technology Sydney)
  • Professor Lisa Hill (University of Adelaide)
  • Lyndal Curtis (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
  • Dr Peter Brent (Australian National University)
  • Dr Peter Chen (University of Sydney)
  • Phil Green (ACT Electoral Commission)
  • Phillip Coorey (Australian Financial Review)

Rather than a stream of one-way formal presentations, the Forum encouraged discussion and networking between academic researchers, electoral practitioners and media commentators around key issues of immediate relevance to the Australian electoral community. The key themes were democratic health, electoral engagement, and the role of stakeholders. These three themes were implicit in the design of the sessions and emerged in a number of ways through the course of the day-and-a-half of presentations and discussions. The session topics for the Forum were:

  • Social media, engagement and elections
  • Managing the roll
  • Participation and turnout
  • Media and citizen engagement

The most explicit of these themes was engagement, which bookended the Forum in the content of the first and last sessions. The opening social media session examined new approaches to engagement with electors via emerging social media avenues, particularly key demographics such as young electors. These young electors are increasingly disengaged from the "old" media of newspapers and television (see Chen & Vromen and Macnamara), the theme of the final session. Traditional forms of media are, however, still important ways of communicating with electors, and are still the main source of information about politics and current events used by electors to inform their votes. Not everyone agrees that electoral management bodies (EMBs) need to be engaged in new media (see Brent), but it is important that EMBs keep abreast of new forms of media, whilst recognising the continued importance of the traditional media.

The issue of democratic health was explored primarily through discussion about the changing nature of democratic participation. As Farrell notes, the political parties which have traditionally been the main vehicle through which citizens engage in electoral democracy are becoming both less representative and more central to electoral democracy. This is a trend that isn't unique to Australia and has been observed and discussed by political scientists across western democracies. If anything the effect of these changes is reduced in Australia, due to our internationally high levels of citizen political engagement that are supported by compulsory enrolment and voting. Chen and Vromen note that trust in government in Australia is high, suggesting high levels of political engagement which are not necessarily reflected in electoral engagement. Such changes are challenging for an EMB deeply embedded in traditional conceptualisations of electoral democracy.

The aforementioned social media are often associated with the changing nature of democratic participation, as Macnamara notes, but whilst social media might be a vehicle for the change, they are not a driver of it. The desire to participate in the democratic process by means other than merely voting every three years is not limited to young people, but as Martin notes, young people participate in a variety of other ways to the extent to which their resources allow. Young people might not be marching in the streets to the extent youth have in the past, but they are involved in various forms of political activity such as boycotts and signing petitions. While some have argued for the lowering of the voting age as a way of increasing the engagement of young people with the democratic process, McAllister found that lowering the voting age to 16 would not make any appreciable difference to their political involvement.

Complicating the situation for the politically neutral EMBs, such as the AEC, engaging more young people in the political process is seen by some as a politically partisan act. This is largely due to beliefs about the political parties for which young people vote. McAllister suggests these fears are misplaced, as enrolling 16 and 17 year olds would have little effect on the political outcomes of elections (and, by extension, nor would more 18 to 25 year olds). Regardless of the political outcomes, the AEC has a responsibility for enrolling all eligible Australians, with no concerns for whom they might vote.

In terms of measuring its own success, the AEC has three measures of the franchise in Australia:

  • The proportion of eligible people enrolled (the participation rate);
  • The proportion of electors who attend a polling place on election day (the turnout rate); and
  • The proportion of electors who complete their ballot paper correctly (the formality rate).

The relative focus of the AEC on these three measures varies throughout the electoral cycle, however all three are considered to be of importance. A particular focus of 2012, the centenary of compulsory enrolment laws in Australia, has been enrolment. This has coincided with the passage of legislation allowing the AEC to directly enrol and update eligible citizens. As Brent points out this is an important electoral reform, however, allowing enrolment on election day would also likely assist enrolment rates (this has not been part of the government's legislative program).

Although Direct Enrolment and Direct Update have been in operation in NSW and Victoria through the respective state electoral commissions for some years (encompassing in both states both Labor and Coalition state governments), it is not without detractors. In particular, some stakeholders are concerned about the possible negative effects on the integrity of the electoral roll. As such, while one of the consequences of these reforms is that over the coming years the AEC can move its focus from encouraging enrolment to the other measures of the franchise, particularly turnout, the AEC must continue to pay particular attention to the integrity of the roll.

Compulsory enrolment and voting is not generally controversial in Australia, however in international contexts it makes Australia almost unique. There is some evidence that the Australia's compulsory system has the effect of strengthening democracy. Hill notes that our system of compulsion creates a particularly equitable democracy, where all eligible citizens have an equal say in the outcome. According to Hill, in Australia voting is not simply a privilege, it is also a duty.

One of the effects of Australia's compulsory enrolment and voting system is that the responsibility for the mobilisation effort, which is most countries is carried by political parties, is in Australia borne mainly by EMBs. The breakdown of the traditional popular party system discussed by Farrell has therefore less effect on turnout in Australia, but it means that the mobilisation burden is assumed by the AEC. There is some room for debate about the limits of the AEC's role and responsibility for creating electoral engagement in the absence of this role being played by political parties.

One reason that voters in Australia might be electorally disengaged is the popular perception of the state of political discourse in the country. This perception (and the ability to change it) is largely outside the control of the AEC. Most (if not all) of the knowledge of the state of politics held by many Australians is mediated by the mainstream media. Australian democracy is in good health, according to the senior political journalists who were involved in the media panel. In particular, they believe that most people become engaged in the electoral and political process around election time, regardless of their views during the rest of the electoral cycle. This has traditionally been a problem for the AEC, with the necessity to maintain the roll throughout the cycle. With direct enrolment and direct update the effects of this electoral disengagement outside election time might be lessened, however whether this is a net win for Australian electoral democracy remains an issue of debate.

One reason for the legislative mandate for the AEC to engage in research is to anticipate and respond to the changing electoral environment (or recommend legislation that might be required in able for it to respond). Reforms such as direct enrolment and direct update are examples of this response, and collaboration with stakeholders such as electoral researchers and other EMBs, as at this Research Forum, are an important step. Farrell's recommendations that the AEC embrace alternative forms of democratic engagement, such as deliberative democracy, is a somewhat more radical reform. However it is not without precedent, as the AEC was involved in electoral reform discussions during the Electoral Reform Green Paper process. The possibility of AEC involvement, as experts or organisers, in some future democracy focussed citizen assembly would be within its legislative remit. The extent to which it might be encouraged by the government of the day is yet to be seen.

The AEC is both a producer and consumer of electoral research. Strong engagement with the research community, both in Australia and internationally, is of direct benefit to both the AEC and the research community. Events such as the AEC Electoral Research Forum strengthen these links, and we are grateful for the enthusiasm with which the researchers and other electoral practitioners embraced this event as panellists, chairs and audience members.

The AEC is harnessing the discussions at the forum to better inform our research agenda and policy development processes.