A quick history of enrolment

In 2013 I attended and gave a paper to a workshop run by CABER.

CABER was the then Electoral Commissioner Ed Killesteyn’s Advisory Board for Electoral Research.

From memory this was a two-day workshop and the session I spoke at dealt with automatic enrolment, or as the Commish wanted us all to call it, direct enrolment. This is something I’ve been going on about for years.

The Coalition was strongly against it and one person in attendance was the Shadow Minister of State Bronwyn Bishop. When it was time for questions she commandeered the podium to … patiently explain her position, and eventually had to be talked down so others could have a go.

I called my talk A History of Enrolment in Australia. (I think some of the words were filched from other of my presentations.) It gives a brief history of enrolment, in the “mother country” and then here, before moving to direct enrolment.

The words I read out are more or less those below.

Although this session isn’t about turnout, I’ll just draw your attention to official 93.2 per cent turnout figure at the 2010 election. Australians tend to be proud of our turnout numbers, invariably in the 90s. But that figure is not right. A figure for Australia that could be compared with, say, the much-quoted American on of 50-something—that is the proportion of eligible voters who cast a valid vote—would be below 80. Probably in the high 70s.

Some of that difference is in the five per cent informal vote. But more importantly, around 10 per cent of our eligible voters aren’t on the roll. And our turnout figure is total votes as a proportion of the roll.

That missing 10 per cent is the 1.5 million missing voters the AEC talks about.

To me the worst consequence of this is in another number: two per cent. Several hundred thousand Australians (about two per cent of eligible voters), tried to vote in 2010 and couldn’t, because they weren’t on the roll. They unsuccessfully lodged provisional votes. There would have been more who upon learning they weren’t on the roll, just turned around and left.

It is so important to have a comprehensive electoral roll.

I’m not a great fan of compulsory voting and compulsory enrolment, partly because it muddies the waters in discussions such as this. Some people say: well, it’s the law, and so people should make sure their enrolment details are up to date.

It means things like the state of the roll are seen as a tool to force people to the polls. I prefer to see it in terms of enabling people to vote. Which is what the electoral roll and the full electoral apparatus are: an infrastructure to enable an efficient, and as full as possible, registering of people’s preferences on election day.

Canada has voluntary enrolment, but a more complete roll than us. The figure they put on their missing electors is seven per cent. Why?

The answer is: because until June, at least, the AEC operated with one hand tied behind its back.

To understand what’s happened, I’m going to give a two-minute history of the electoral roll in Australia. Enrolment is responsible for the shape of the AEC today. It drove the whole process, the development of a stand-alone independent electoral apparatus.

In the United Kingdom before 1832 there was no written electoral roll. The 1832 Reform Act changed that, laying out the annual process of sticking notices on public buildings like churches and courts, advising people to get on the roll if they wanted. People did this by writing up and handing in enrolment forms. There were public objections and revision courts. People paid to get on the roll. The work was done by council employees.

This was the process inherited by Australia when we started running elections in the 1840s.

It was in South Australia from the 1850s that things started to change, and diverge from both Britain and the other colonies. Registration fees were abolished. The state became proactive: every several years police and council workers knocked on houses around the colony leaving enrolment forms (or in practice filling it out on the spot with the occupant). In between times the roll was maintained continuously. People could get on the roll or change their details at any time. By, naturally, filling in bits of paper. Births deaths and marriages records were used by officials to take people off when they died.

A standalone permanent electoral apparatus developed, the world’s first, with permanent, salaried returning officers responsible for the roll in the electorate, reporting to a central figure, the returning officer for the province.

That person was the precursor to the current Australian Electoral Commissioner. These were world firsts. As far as I can tell there were no specifically designated, permanent electoral officials anywhere else.

And towards the end of the century census collectors started doubling as roll collectors. They were building a roll, and didn’t particularly care if people wanted to vote or not.

In 1901 came federation, and in 1902 the Australian Electoral Office was created. Most of its organisational structure was picked up from South Australia: a chief electoral officer with spokes going out, this time to six state electoral officers, to whom permanent returning officers reported.

The first Commonwealth electoral roll was created in 1902–3, a centrally coordinated effort that in most states involved door to door knocks by police. But not South Australia,

because they already had a good roll and their franchise was virtually identical to the new one.

It seems to have been the one and only time the Commonwealth electoral roll was created from scratch (the SA part exempted). After that, there was continuous roll maintenance, electorate by electorate, as in SA.

Piece by piece joint roll arrangements were agreed upon, first Tasmania in 1905 and last Queensland in 1991 and then the ACT with its first elections the next year.

The rolls were initially kept in large books at the level of sub-division. In 1912 these were replaced with a card system, and in the 1970s databases on computers. Regular habitation reviews became the main source of enrolment information in the late 1970s.

A big change came in 1999. Continuous Roll Update (CRU) replaced habitation reviews. Under CRU, the AEC obtains data from various Commonwealth, State and Territory government bodies and cleans, crunches it.

Every year several million Australians move house and with CRU the AEC has been very efficient, with this new data, at taking them off the roll at their old address. But it has not been able to put them on at their new one. All it can do is send enrolment forms out and plead with people to fill them out, and they are increasingly discarded.

And this is probably the main reason for the deteriorating roll. The AEC has been asking for the right to do the other side. To do, for example what Canada can.

In June lat year, finally, parliament passed a bill to enable just that. Welcome to the 21st century. The AEC is fond of saying direct enrolment and direct update is not a panacea, it’s not a silver bullet, but it is a fine development. It was introduced in Victoria and NSW in 2010, and as Antony Green has written the resulting growing divergence between the state roll and state portion of the commonwealth roll has made the change at the commonwealth level even more necessary.

An associated remnant of the past is the organisation of the AEC. Those permanent returning officers are still there, with their 2.5 staff. The AEC has for years wanted rationalise them and parliament has let them a bit, with processes called ‘regionalisation’, ‘shared premises’, ‘amalgamation’, ‘collocation’, ‘workload sharing’, but it’s still, with a few exceptions, a DRO per electorate.

At least until a few years ago it was the case that when people sent in enrolment forms to the state office of the AEC, someone would put them into the pigeon hole for the division and they would get posted out there and data-entered.

Nowadays most of them come via the website, at least.

This structure was once a significant driver of Australia’s trailblazing in running elections, but it’s long past its usefulness.

I want to raise a couple of concerns, that really kick in with a comprehensive roll, no matter how it is created. One is privacy. The electoral roll is given to candidates at elections, electronically. Electronic data is so easy to pass around. It is a big worry.

A full, comprehensive roll, one that is closer to 100 than 92 per cent complete, will mean a lower on-paper turnout. That’s a good thing, because it is more “correct”.

But it also means more people are fined. The AEC doesn’t fine people for not being on the roll but it does for not voting. Do we really want that? The state/territory with the highest proportion of unenrolled is the Northern Territory, predominately Indigenous Australians. Direct enrolment won’t necessarily be very effective with that portion of the population, but if it were, you would get many of them being fined for not voting.

There is the political angle. It is a sad fact that over the centuries “left” progressive parties have seen it as in their interests to get as many people as possible to vote, and conservative, right wing ones have wanted to narrow it. Unfortunately parties’ attitudes to these things are driven by backroom operators who are always on the lookout for that minuscule advantage, just in case the result is close. Which it rarely is.

Some of the figures put out about the change to the vote if all these people are included are wacky. Some have suggested a 20 point two-party preferred vote advantage to Labor. By that I mean 60 40 if the rest of the country votes 50 50. That really would only apply to the minority, about 17 per cent, of the unenrolled who are aged 18-19. Overall I think it’s closer to 53 47. Which, if the roll were 100 per cent complete—it will never be—and if all the new people voted and voted formally—a large minority won’t—would mean a 0.3 per cent increase in the Labor two-party preferred vote.

I see roll maintenance, as electoral administration per se, as like maintaining the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It is there to serve the public, and its shape and nature is determined by what is in the public’s interest, but there really is no need to get the people involved in the decisions. You let the experts get on with it. So I don’t put a premium on engaging people in the process.

I also don’t see much value in finding out why people aren’t enrolling. Who cares? Just get them on the bloody roll.

It’s a bit different. A bridge, unless it is torn down and built again, will always be recognisable as that structure that was opened in 1932. It will have that look.

There are reasons why the maintenance of the electoral roll is like that: the ancestor of that organisation created in 1902. So much of it is recognisable. But it doesn’t have to be. And this change, to direct enrolment, is an important change.

I’ll just finish by mentioning election-day enrolment, which was rejected by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) report and it not being sought by the AEC. This is a pity. Hopefully it will come soon.

Short history of preferential voting

First published in the Australian on 9 December 2014.

Australians have had preferential voting for national elections since 1918, but it took almost half a century for some key concepts to be understood.

This is something I wrote in 2006 for an academic paper I never finished. This being a longish Sunday, I’ve slightly polished and updated it and plonked it here.

It’s about the history of preferential voting in single member electorates (aka AV) in Australia, and people’s understanding of it. Thinking in terms of a national two party preferred vote (which is not very applicable to UK’s three party system) didn’t really arrive until at least the 1960s.

I. History of Preferential Voting in Single Member Electorates

Preferential voting in single member electorates, using one ballot paper, is an Australian invention.

When the colonies started running elections in the 1840s–50s their starting point, as with most things, was how it was done ‘back home’—in England. For voting system this meant first past the post.

The pre-federation colony of Queensland introduced a voting system called ‘contingent voting’ in1892. It replicated the then (and now) French two-round system, but on the one piece of paper, on the one election day, rather than successive weeks or fortnights or months. From the point of view of the voter filling out his (only males voted in Australia in 1892) ballot paper, it was identical to what we today know as Optional Preferential Voting: for a vote to count, a first preference had to be indicated, and the numbering of any more squares was optional. However, in the counting it differed from today’s OPV in that there were only two ‘rounds’: if no candidate achieved over 50%, all but the top two candidates were eliminated at once and all their preferences distributed.

Contingent voting saved the added expense of an extra election. Queensland carried it on at state level until 1942, when it adopted first past the post. In 1962 it joined most of the rest of Australia in moving to compulsory preferential voting, and in 1992 joined New South Wales in adopting OPV.

At the national level, the first elections for the new federated nation, in 1901, were run by the colonies/states. Each ran its own portion, using its own rules and franchise. Federal parliament then appointed a conference of the states’ electoral administrators to make recommendations for electoral arrangements, which were to be the genesis, with substantial modification, of the first electoral act in 1902. The conference recommended Queensland’s contingent voting, but with compulsory numbering of every square (recommendation 29). The version promoted by the Barton government, through Senator Richard O’Connor, was what we would today call OPV (Jan 30 1902, page 9534) (The government also advocated proportional representation in the Senate); Australia instead got first past the post in the lower house (and the terrible ‘block vote’ in the senate).

The second Commonwealth Electoral Act, in 1918 however, contained compulsory preferential voting in both houses. The Hughes Nationalist government largely introduced it because the rise of the Country Party had threatened to split the conservative vote. In the House of Representatives it was first used at a by-election in the Victorian seat of Corangamite, and then at the full general elections in 1919.
(The CEA 1918 also introduced preferential voting for the senate, which was even worse than the block vote. In 1948 legislation introduced STV, proportional representation, for the senate.) The states adopted preferential voting for their lower houses. Today all but Tasmania, which went its own way early, have CPV or OPV (Queensland and New South Wales) )

II. History of our ‘Understanding’ of Preferential Voting in Single Member Electorates

Preferences and aggregate national two party preferred votes have therefore been with us since 1919. Our understanding of it is another story, and has evolved in part by necessity as support for the major parties has decreased and preferences become more important. It seems that from 1918 until the late 1960s, political strategists and other interested parties no doubt understood the workings of preferences in individual seats, but the concept of a national two party preferred vote did not exist. In part this was because of the limited use of opinion polls and, apart from the rise of Lang Labor in the 1930s and 1940s and the Democratic Labor Party from the 1950s onwards, the major parties enjoyed, between them, high levels of support, and so preferences were not so important as today.

The political scientist Malcolm Mackerras was central in the development of our understanding of the concept. His entry in the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Australian Politics gives a fine summary of events. According to Mackerras, “[t]he intellectual origins of the two-party preferred vote go back to 1949″, conceptually anticipated in a research note by Leicester Webb. In 1957 Joan Rydon, measuring electorate margins, devised what she called the “adjusted two party vote”.

A decade later Mackerras adapted David Butler’s ‘swingometer’ to Australian conditions, called it a pendulum, and the rest is history. Mackerras continues the story:

“The first serious attempt to adjust for the massive changes brought about by redistribution came in my first book, The 1968 Federal Redistribution. The data from that was then put into pendulum form in a newspaper article. … It should be noted, however, that the Rydon expression ‘adjusted two-party vote’ never caught on. By contrast my re-naming of it as the ‘two-party preferred vote’ did win immediate recognition essentially because it was combined with a pendulum and because observers instinctively understood what it meant.”

In an email Mackerras has told me that the first federal election his pendulum was used for was in 1972.

In 1984 the newly created Australian Electoral Commission (which replaced the Australian Electoral Office), headed by academic Colin Hughes, began calculating and publishing full two candidate preferred votes for every seat and two party preferred nationally. They went back to the previous federal election, in 1983, and counted them out to full exhaustion, and then did it for all elections starting with the next one in 1984. They also estimated them from 1949 to 1980 by assuming likely preference flows for minor parties and independents. Gradually, most state authorities followed suit.1 Since around the mid nineteen eighties political scientists and other political observers have recognised the importance of the concept.

To explain the importance of two party preferred over primary votes, I like to make two points. One is that in a seat where the two main contestants are Labor and Coalition, the candidate who gets the higher two party preferred vote wins the seat – always. It is embedded in the preferential electoral system.

Secondly, a simple conceptual explanation is that if, after an election, you took all the voting papers in the country and made of them two piles, one containing ballot papers where the Coalition is ranked ahead of the ALP, and the other vice versa2, this is the two party preferred vote. It doesn’t matter where on the ballot paper the ranking is, and so it might be seen as especially appropriate in an age of much discussion involving electors choosing between ‘the lesser of two evils’. Another clear explanation is to draw on the comparion of the French/Russian/Latin American two round system, alluded to with Queensland’s contingent voting, above.

The most casual observer of Australian politics today can tell you that Labor won the vote but not the election in 1998 and the Coalition did the same in 1990. In 1987 the Coalition won more primary votes than Labor, but fell behind after preferences; this election is never included in the list because consensus, correctly, looks predominately at two party preferred votes. However, contemporary accounts in 1954, 1961 and 1969 observed only that Labor won ‘the vote’, that is, the primary vote, and there was recognition (for the last two) that DLP preferences had made the differences. The concept of a national vote after preferences did not occur. From today’s post-Mackerras world, we can say that, despite DLP preferences, the ALP also won the two party preferred vote on those three occasions. (The 1987 election was the first at which the party leading on primary votes did not win the two party preferred vote; the second was in 2010. [Update: but see this comment and response below about 1954.]) At all elections swings are ‘lumpy’, and there really is no particular reason why the winner of the national two party preferred vote should necessarily win the most seats.

But two party preferred data is a much better indicator of a party’s competitiveness than primary support.

Taking stock …

Cranking this blog up again. Current writing can be found at Inside Story and the Drum.

Older writing at the Oz here and here.

An Australian Nate Silver?

- First published in the Australian, 23 November 2012.

Since Nate Silver’s fame was well and truly cemented with the US presidential election result, some have suggested that Australia “needs a Nate Silver”.
Silver, who blogs for the New York Times, rose to fame with PECOTA, a system for forecasting baseball players’ performance. (Wikipedia entry here.) I can’t claim to know much about that, but assuming it does what it’s supposed to it sounds like a work of great genius and originality.
What he did for the presidential election was more mundane: synthesise the voting intentions opinion polls and produce state-by-state and overall odds.
Silver wasn’t the only person to do this, just the most famous. Simon Jackman, an Australian academic at Stanford University (who sometimes writes for this newspaper) was another, and he came up with pretty well the same odds.
On election eve they gave Obama about an 80 per cent chance of victory and Romney about 20 per cent. That 80 per cent encompassed everything from a narrow win to a big win. What was unusual was that all the polls were right in all the states. I wonder what the odds of that were?
The fact that Obama won didn’t make Silver “right”, and if Mitt Romney had won it wouldn’t have proved him “wrong”.
If anyone was “right” it was the opinion polls. Silver no doubt crunched them in a very sophisticated way, digging beneath the surface by obtaining details from pollsters and doing some of the weighting and other manipulation that pollsters generally do themselves.
In 2008 Silver apparently got all the states right except one (Indiana) but what that really meant was the polls got all the states right except one.
It was surprising to learn afterwards that the Romney camp actually expected to win the election. One imagines a campaign team operates two mindsets concurrently: the realistic one and the hopeful one. That’s fair enough. On one level you know you’re not likely to win, but on the other you say “I’m feeling pretty good; we might just do it.”
And the polls, while great in number, all showed it being reasonably close. They weren’t pointing to a landslide.
But it seems the Republicans really expected Romney would be comfortably elected. For that belief to take hold they had to have hard-headed number-crunching types telling them it was so.
And people like Karl Rove and Dick Morris did do that. They too had convinced themselves; they thought most of the pollsters’ and Silver’s assumptions and measurements regarding turnout of different groups of people, such as Latinos and Blacks, were wrong. (Read Morris’ mea culpa here.)
There was also something about surveyed Independents (when Americans register to vote they usually have to describe themselves as “Republican” or “Democrat” or “Independent”) slightly favouring Romney. Usually whoever Independents vote for wins. But everyone knew Independents this time consisted of an extra group of people to the right of the Republicans who would favour Romney. People were saying that before the election; there was no excuse for not realising it.
Camp Romney created its reality, from the ground up.
But back to the original proposition of an Australian Nate Silver. For such a creature to exist would require two things. The first is lots and lots more published opinion polls. Americans don’t just have 14 times the poll data we have (14 being the approximate magnitude of their greater electorate size); they have more than that.
The second aspect relates to the electoral architecture and makes the task even harder. Americans particularly poll the “swing states”—those that tend to go to the winner and which have more than a handful of Electoral College votes. The Australian House of Representatives has three times as many “electorates”, 150 of them currently, and they are of equal size. To predict seat-by-seat, pollsters would have to survey individually all that have the slightest chance of being in play.
That would be a massive task. The economies of scale do not remotely exist.
Currently the closest we have are people like Pollytics and Poliquant. Both have a Nate-like understanding of stats and they average and weight and project the latest published polls to give a two-party-preferred number they then apply to the pendulum, or state-by-state bits of the pendulum. (Pollytics has other “secret” data but that would play only a small part.)
To me this is going a bit overboard given the meagre data available. (They both also make other calculations.) We can all see the recent published polls and can get the vibe ourselves. It will be more useful during the campaign, but even then there are so few polls it’s debatable whether a formula that takes into account last week’s polls is more useful than just looking at today’s.
Nate reckons he’s not that much into politics actually. With the election out of the way, sport is creeping into his blog.
Which is here.

The first returning officers

A tiny slice of my PhD thesis. A five minute slide show on Youtube.


Electorate tables

Federal election 2013 and other.


Bolt from the blue

THIS afternoon a strange thing happened on my Twitter stream. I started receiving angry tweets about something I’d written at 1:13pm yesterday (Saturday).

In addition someone found my email address and sent a note that I’m a “low life scumbag … you and your fellow left wing/Green ratbags have absolutely no shame … You should be ashamed of yourself and your employer should sack you.”

“Scumbag” got a mention in the odd tweet too. Most of them were from people I’d never heard from before, who don’t follow me and who I don’t follow. I’ve retweeted most of them, so you can see them on my account if you could be bothered wading through.

Then I worked out what happened. That nice Andrew Bolt had given me a plug on the country’s most widely-read blog.

Now continued here.

A post …

just because ….

Election 2013 census table gallery

Apart from archives there’s nothing new to see at this site since I started blogging at the Oz.

Except for the federal election census and seat table gallery. Check it out here.

Nonsense reporting about direct enrolment

This was published in the Australian on 12 December 2012. It is pasted here un
Here are some simple facts about the electoral roll and direct enrolment.
There are currently around 14.3 million people on the electoral roll. At the last election, in 2010, there were 14.1 million. The AEC estimates that around 1.5 million eligible voters living in Australia are not on the roll, and puts the 2010 number at 1.4 million.
So about one in ten eligible votes are not on the roll.
But—and this bit seems to cause confusion among some journalists and academics—it is not true to say most of those 1.5 million are young people. Most of them are in fact over 30. There are more unenrolled people over 50 than aged 18–19. I spelt this out in a recent post.
And it is not true to say most of the 1.5 million have never been enrolled. Most of them have, but dropped off at some stage when they moved home.
So young never-enrolled are a small subset of the “missing 1.5 million”. This is important.
Another misunderstanding, or assumption behind shock-horror analysis, is that direct enrolment will get all these unenrolled into the roll. It won’t. It won’t even come close, not even by 2020.
As you might expect, the commission is proceeding with care, slowly.
As Milanda Rout in the Australian has written: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/labor-in-campaign-to-mobilise-the-young/story-fn59niix-1226534036231
“The AEC expects to automatically enrol 500,000 to 600,000 over the next two to three electoral cycles as a result of the new laws. A number of the remaining one million “missing” voters may not be picked up under the new system, including the homeless, indigenous people and some non-English speaking communities”
So only about a third of the “missing” will eventually be scooped up—after four to seven years.
So, what about the 2013 election? How many electors will be directly enrolled by then? I reckon 200 thousand is as good a guess as any. It assumes some low-hanging fruit in the early stages of the process.
The unenrolled are disproportionately young, and mobile, and renters, all people who lean left-of-centre more than the rest. (There’s much overlap between those groups of course.)
Earlier this year an ABC 730 segment and Drum article asserted that the unenrolled would favour the ALP, after preferences, by around 10 per cent more than the rest of the country. I think that’s crazy. It may apply to the very youngest age cohort, the 18 to 19 year olds, but not the rest. I reckon it would be less than 3 per cent across all age-groups, but let’s call it 3 per cent for the sake of argument.
Let’s also pretend every one of the extra 200 thousand turns out to vote next year. In reality, for pretty obvious reasons, we can be sure they’ll turn out at a lower rate than everyone else.
(NSW started direct enrolling before its 2011 election and about 80 per cent of them turned out.)
And we’ll also assume all of them will vote formal, when for similar reasons we can be pretty sure they’ll register a higher informal rate than everyone else.
Finally, let’s apply it to the last election, which again is overly generous, as 200 thousand will be a smaller proportion of total voters in 2013 than 2010.
Here are the sums.
In 2010 the two-party-preferred votes for the ALP and Coalition were 6,216,445 and 6,185,918 respectively, 50.12 to 49.88 per cent. If we add 200 thousand more votes, favouring the ALP 53.12 46.88,
Labor on 50.17 and Coalition on 49.83. A difference of 0.05 per cent of the total vote.
It would be vary a little across electorates of course. And 0.04 can make a difference in close seats. But no seat was that close in 2010.
In 2010 several hundred thousand people tried to vote but couldn’t because they weren’t on the roll. If direct enrolment brings that number down, it will be a good thing.
How can making the electoral roll more accurate be a “rort”?
Mr Pyne needs a Bex and a lie down and so do a few others.

*Overseas Aussies is a whole different category. There are around a million of them, but less than 100,000 on the roll and voting.