In-person vote push killed off

A PROPOSAL to switch back to in-person elections at Stirling council has been killed off.

Not a single councillor would back colleague Elizabeth Re’s motion to consider ending their 20-year all-postal voting experiment. 

Cr Re had argued that after 20 years postal voting hadn’t lived up to the promise of increasing voter turnout, and research pointed to the mail method potentially reducing turnouts.

Postal voting’s lost some shine in light of ballots going missing or being stolen out of mailboxes, which led to Cambridge council opting for in-person voting at their extraordinary election this year (“Fraud takes polish off postal voting,” Voice, September 3, 2022). 

Cr Re said the mail method was costing them a huge amount of money. Stirling is a large council by Perth standards, and at the last election it spent $611,000 sending out more than 150,000 ballots; 75 per cent went unused. 

Cr Re suggested council buildings accept drop-in voting for a few weeks ahead of the poll date, while postal ballots could still be sent out to those who needed them.

But when Cr Re tried to make her case to investigate the pros and cons of postal versus personal, no one stepped up to second the motion and allow her to continue.

Cr Re was halfway through introducing her motion, saying “research has shown that now people are more likely to vote if they have to go and vote at a premises, than take a postal vote ballot paper and post it” when mayor Mark Irwin reminded the room she needed a seconder before getting into the substantial debate.

“I’m always cautious when you say ‘research has shown’ without a quote or some indication of where that research has come from,” Mr Irwin said.

Cr Re said she had the references to back it up but no one broke ranks to back her up, and without a seconder there was no further debate allowed.  

That means the upcoming November 25 by-election will be postal as usual. Nominations open October 6 for the by-election. It’s needed a year earlier than the usual election cycle to fill an extraordinary vacancy left by the resignation of former Balga Ward councillor Keith Sargent, who faces court September 29 over allegations of possessing child exploitation material.

The research

SINCE mayor Mark Irwin was cautious about councillor Liz Re talking “research” without references, the Voice did a quick literature review of some major studies into the effects of all-mail voting in local elections.

It looks like Cr Re was onto something; after an initial boost in turnout, the novelty can wear off if the system proves unreliable or too easy to cheat, and some researchers argue the number of ‘new’ voters brought in by the method is hard to distinguish from the increased number of phoney votes.

1987: US political scientist David Magleby finds a clear effect of mail ballots increasing turnout in local elections. 

2000: A US study ‘Going Postal: How All-Mail Elections Influence Turnout’ agrees that introducing postal voting does initially increase turnout, but mentions it might be down to the novelty of the method. Some researchers predicted turnouts could dwindle over time.

2006: A UK article noted there had indeed been an increase in turnout when all-mail voting was introduced in the 2004 Birmingham local elections, however it turned out a significant number of the additional votes had been stolen out of mailboxes and lodged fraudulently. Author John Stewart wrote: “The ballot papers were sent out by ordinary mail in clearly identified envelopes. As the commissioner commented in his executive summary: ‘Short of writing “STEAL ME” on the envelopes, it is hard to see what more could be done to ensure their coming into the wrong hands’.”

2010: A study titled ‘Postal Voting and Voter Turnout in Local Elections: Lessons from New Zealand and Australia’ argues that after an initial boost “postal voting no longer increases or decreases voter turnout in these countries”. Reasons include fraud concerns, postal voting being less social and less engaging than in-person democracy, and voters feeling rushed by having to mail off a ballot before the campaign’s fully played out.

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