Uncounted Votes: Informal Voting in the House of Representatives as a Marker of Political Exclusion in Australia

Article excerpt

Changes made by the Coalition Government in 2006 to voter enrolment procedures for national elections in Australia attracted criticism for their tendency to politically exclude certain social groups, particularly young people, prisoners and the poor. (1) The introduction of more stringent identification requirements for registering to vote and the early closure of the electoral roll were particularly controversial] However, more subtle and long-standing inequalities within the Australian political process are also significant in relation to political and social exclusion. One of these is the nonenrolment of a significant number of voters--particularly younger voters. (3) Another is informal voting. Although Australia's compulsory voting system (4) has led to a very high rate of turnout in Australia--on average around 93 per cent of registered voters (5)--there is also a high informal voting rate and this has led to the political exclusion of significant numbers of citizens. At each national election in Australia, hundreds of thousands of votes are not counted because the ballots are improperly filled out. The informal vote rate is an indicator of social and political exclusion, with particular groups of Australians being inordinately disadvantaged. The fact that this indicator has increased in four out of the past five federal elections is of significant concern. To consider this phenomenon, we begin by defining social exclusion and its relationship to voting participation after which we explore some of the mechanical aspects of informal voting relevant to this discussion.

Social Exclusion

Social exclusion is a broad term to denote a range of goods, services, activities, entitlements and conditions of which certain members of society may be deprived. A large literature on social exclusion lists the following as items to which the socially excluded do not have access:

   [A] livelihood; secure, permanent employment; earnings; property,
   credit or land; housing; minimal or prevailing consumption levels;
   education, skills, and cultural capital; the welfare state;
   citizenship and legal equality; democratic participation; public
   goods; the nation or the dominant race; family and sociability;
   humanity, respect, fulfillment and understanding. (6)

For Amartya Sen, social exclusion is not simply about economic deprivation but is understood more broadly as a matter of "poor living". Following Aristotle, he conceives an "impoverished life" as one that lacks "the freedom to undertake important activities that a person has reason to choose". (7) Along these lines, researchers at the UK Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) have identified five components of social exclusion. These are: poverty, insecurity, "lack of engagement in an activity valued by others", lack of family, community or friendship support and lack of "decision-making power", by which is meant being civically disengaged. (8) These components are often associated so that one form of exclusion may lead to--or at least be correlated with--other forms. (9) Likewise, Sen stresses the "relational" character of social exclusion and the manner in which economic deprivation triggers other forms of exclusion, specifically exclusion from participation in social relations. (10) As we will show, this dynamic is well exemplified in the relationship between informal voting and indicators of social exclusion in Australia.

To be socially excluded is to live in a society without participating in the "normal activities of citizens in that society". (11) Socially excluded people have weaker than usual affiliations with the "social, economic, political and cultural system" that normally determines a person's level of integration with mainstream society. (12) Social exclusion is both a condition and process "of becoming detached" from the society's "organization and communities" including their attendant "rights and obligations". …