Election blues

The WA Electoral Commission says the participation rate for this month’s local government elections in WA is likely to be lower than it was two years ago.

General manager of elections David Payne says a state-wide participation rate of around 28.5% is likely following the election that came to its conclusion on Saturday.

This rate is lower than the last council elections in 2017 in which 34.5% of eligible voters participated.

A significant number of people prefer to do a postal vote over an in-person vote. Photo: Kristen Ricciardi.

Acting Commissioner for the WA Electoral Commission Chris Avent says participation rates at local government elections have declined over time.

“The introduction of postal voting elections in the 1990s kicked along participation rates at large urban councils from a very low base experienced at in-person elections, often around 10% of less, but rates have generally trended downwards over more recent years,” he says.

Although there was a spike in participation in 2017 due to postal voting, participation in council elections is slowly declining. Graphics: Kristen Ricciardi.

Chris Avent says there are many reasons why people choose not to vote at these elections.

“Some people might not vote because they are happy with their council, others because they are simply not interested, others because they don’t like any of the candidates and so on … However, a common trend across most western democracies has been a reduction in civic engagement and participation in elections, political parties and so on,” he says.

He says a major factor contributing to the low participation rate is the fact that voting at local elections is voluntary.

“The state-wide participation rate at the ordinary elections that have just occurred was about 28.5%. At state and federal elections it is typically about 90% as voting is compulsory.”

Participation in local government elections is very low for a number of reasons. Graphics: Kristen Ricciardi.

He says voting is compulsory at local government elections in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.

Chris Avent says if voting was made compulsory and a penalty was applied to those who don’t vote, the participation rate would increase.

“Whether is should be made compulsory is a matter of policy for the State Government and the Parliament,” he says.

Ballot papers and voting information are sent out to all WA residents, and postal voting is encouraged. Photo: Kristen Ricciardi

Adjunct Professor of Political Science at UWA Campbell Sharman says even though this is a low rate, he does not think the introduction of compulsory voting for local elections is the answer.

“This is a debate about what elections are for, and one reason is to indicate how much people care about how their government is run,” he says.

He says if people are happy about what their local government is doing, then voting in these elections becomes less important.

“But if the council suddenly imposes a huge increase in rates, watch the turnout increase,” Dr Sharman says.

Chris Avent says typically more than 50% of those who vote at local government elections in WA are over the age of 55.

“They are more likely to be ratepayers, likely to have greater interaction with their local government, they are in the habit of voting, they may have more time to participate,” he says.

Dr Sharman says even though these rates of participation might seem low, this data may not be as accurate as we may think, as technical factors might play a role.

“There is now a major problem in counting registered voters … many voters are automatically entered on the Electoral Roll and it is hard to verify if they really live in the electoral district to which they have been assigned,” he says.

Although a majority of Australians are enrolled to vote, a significant number of people are not having their say. Graphics: Kristen Ricciardi

Professor Benjamin Reilly from the School of Social Sciences at the University of WA says another technical factor that might skew this data is the fact than many people, especially young people, do not enrol to vote in the first place.

“Technically, enrolment is compulsory, but it is not enforced. Estimates are that somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million people are not enrolled to vote, and a good proportion of these people don’t enrol because they don’t want to be fined for not voting,” he said.

Chris Avent says despite this, voting in local government elections is critical, and people should not complain about decisions made by governments if they do not vote.

“We did run a campaign at the last state election that essentially said ‘If you don’t vote, you can’t complain about decisions made that you don’t like,'” he says.

An AEC campaign run in WA to promote voting in elections. Video: Youtube.