You may have noticed a postal vote application recently. Often it will appear as an AEC form accompanied by a letter or some promotional material from a political party, with a reply paid envelope included.
Some residents have filled these in, sending them back in the supplied envelope, believing the letter is on its way to the Australian Electoral Commission.
What isn't immediately obvious from the form and the way the accompanying information is worded, is that the address on the return envelope is actually that of a political party.
By filling in the Postal Vote Application Form and sending it in the return envelope, you have just provided that political party with your email address, date of birth, postal address, and potentially your city of birth, first place of employment, last school you attended, or make and model of your first car; far more information than can be obtained from a copy of the electoral role.
While you might find the service provided by the party rather convenient, it pays to at least know who you're supplying the information to.
Under the privacy act in Australia, you have access to any information companies and organisations have on record about yourself. However, there is an exemption for registered political parties. (Link here for more info) So you cannot find out or have removed any information a political party has about yourself. There have been attempts to have political parties covered by the same privacy laws other organisations are, but thus far these attempts have been unsuccessful.
The government tried to change the rules around PVAs in 2010, proposing that forms had to be returned to the AEC directly and prohibiting written material (i.e. political advertising) being sent alongside the forms. These changes were opposed, and the amendments that passed still allowed for political parties to send out material as they do. The coalition, who opposed the changes at the time, stated that "it strongly suspects that this has been done in a cynical attempt to undermine the extremely successful Postal Voting processes of the Coalition parties. Even a simple reading of the voter returns shows that the Coalition consistently polls higher with postal votes than with any other type of declaration vote."
The Coalition believed the measure was only introduced to parliament as a political tactic by Labor to undermine the success they traditionally enjoy from postal votes.
The AEC is not happy
The Australian Electoral Commission has repeatedly expressed its dissatisfaction with the practice.
Table and quote from the Australian National University: Directions in Australian Electoral Reform, Chapter 9 (Click here to view entire publication)
The table below shows the Postal Vote Applications received by the AEC for the 2010 election, which parties sent them in, and how many were late.
"The AEC’s figures also show that 49 per cent of all PVAs are returned by electors directly to the AEC. This leaves more than 51 per cent being returned via a third party (usually Labor or the Coalition, as shown above). For the 2010 election, this amounted to more than 191 000 applications that were delayed in being received by the AEC due to them being sent on a circuitous route. This is a substantial number, roughly equivalent to two House of Representatives seats, and is an increase of more than 87 000 on 2007 figures. Over the past 20 years, the AEC has consistently criticised the practice of such overt party involvement in the conduct of an election. The AEC’s arguments include the following: • There is a potential for voters to become confused, thinking that the parties are the ones who are responsible for postal voting, rather than the AEC. • Delays occur, due to applications not being returned directly to the AEC, resulting in possible disenfranchisement. • Electors often receive more than one PVA, sometimes resulting in multiple applications being received by the AEC, adding to its administrative burden. • There is unnecessary use of postal voting, increasing costs and delaying the finalisation of results. • Political parties stockpile PVAs before sending them to the AEC, resulting in processing delays and, at times, disenfranchisement. Stockpiling is an offence under Section 197 of the Act. • The secrecy and integrity of the ballot might be compromised, as votes are cast in an uncontrolled environment. • Parties attempt to obscure the fact that the PVA is returned to a party address, by using terms such as ‘Returning Officer’. • Party officials ‘correct’ details on PVAs before sending them to the AEC."
The publication goes on to mention instances where voters were actually disenfranchised of their vote due to their postal vote application being delayed:
Under the Commonwealth system, parties can, either accidentally or deliberately, delay a PVA from reaching the AEC, meaning that eligible voters might be prevented from casting a vote. During JSCEM’s inquiry into the 1998 election, the AEC identified 174 electors who were disenfranchised through apparent delays in parties returning PVAs. In reporting this, JSCEM attempted to spread the blame by stating in their report that:
It is not entirely clear from the evidence that the political parties are wholly responsible for the 174 disenfranchised postal voters. It is possible that some were disenfranchised as a result of administrative errors by the AEC. In the absence of further evidence, the Committee urges both the AEC and the political parties to improve their processing of postal vote application forms.
The AEC has raised its concerns since at least 1993 about the delays created by parties stockpiling PVAs, and evidence in its 2008 submission to JSCEM suggests the practice is continuing, with a surge in the number of applications being received more than 14 days after the witness signature on the PVA (see Table 9.1). The proportion of all PVAs received was far higher for the parties (Labor, 7.6 per cent; Liberal, 5.1 per cent) for this category (more than 14 days after signing) than for those sent directly to the AEC (2.2 per cent of all PVAs). This indicates delays from the double mailing involved in sending a PVA to the AEC via a party address, and possibly from the parties stockpiling PVAs prior to sending them to the AEC. In both cases, the possibility of voters being disenfranchised increases.
From these statistics it appears that the double handling of the Postal Vote Applications is causing more late applications that would have otherwise occurred.
However, it can be argued that the wide distribution of the PVAs encourages more people to vote than otherwise would have, which benefits the democratic process.
Note: This article replaces an earlier version that only made mention of a single party which undertook this practice. As you can see from the chart above, the practice is common across the political spectrum.