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The Guardian - AU

High number of invalid votes in culturally diverse seats prompts concerns after federal election

An Australian Electoral Commission employee marks a voter off the electoral roll
A high informal vote in some electorates has raised concerns about the level of understanding among some groups of voters about the voting system. Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

More than one in 10 votes were ruled invalid in the multicultural seat of Fowler, raising serious questions about whether explanations of Australia’s compulsory preferential voting system are getting through.

Fowler, in Sydney’s south-west, has one of the highest non-English-speaking populations, many of whom have come to Australia as refugees from countries with very different political systems.

It had a huge informal vote of 10.47%, and scrutineers reported that in some booths it was closer to 20%.

In the neighbouring seat of Blaxland, centred on the multicultural suburb of Bankstown, the informal vote was even higher at 11.02%.

So far, the count in the 2022 election has revealed an informal vote of 5.08% nationally for the House of Representatives, which is lower than the 5.54% figure for 2019.

For the Senate, where voters are confronted with a much larger ballot paper and two options for completing it, the informal vote in Fowler was more than 15%.

This compares with 6.75% nationally.

Scrutineers in Fowler said that while some people had deliberately left their papers blank, most informal votes were for other reasons. Some voters had failed to fill out all the squares on their House of Representatives green ballot paper or they had simply put a tick or cross next to their chosen candidate.

None of these are valid votes under the federal rules of compulsory preferential voting, despite the voters’ first preference being clear.

In the Northern Territory seat of Lingiari, where there is a high Indigenous population, informal votes were running at 6.15%, and in the Melbourne seat of Hawke, on the city’s western fringe, at 9.21%.

In contrast, the informal vote in Wentworth in Sydney’s wealthy eastern suburbs was 2.35%, and in Bean in Canberra, with high education levels, the informal vote was 2.75%.

In the western Tasmanian seat of Braddon, with a lower education level, the informal vote was 8.02%.

Dr Archana Voola, the policy officer at the Western Sydney Migrant Resource Centre, said the informal vote in the electorates of western Sydney was “a massive issue”.

She said the centre had just run a campaign, Civic Spotlight, that aimed to educate migrant communities about the voting system, but more needed to be done.

“The AEC, they are not doing enough to address it. They have resources online and they provide information in several languages but it’s not just about addressing community leaders, it needs to be one-on-one,” she said.

She said events like meet-the-candidates and better education in schools was needed to explain not just the voting system, but the different levels of government in Australia.

She said the research showed that the two main factors were a lack of English and also higher level of social exclusion and disadvantage.

“Even I was not prepared for the Senate ballot sheet, and the changed instructions on how to vote,” she said.

The constitutional law expert, Prof George Williams from the University of New South Wales, said the first thing was to understand the problem.

“We need to dig deeper. Is it particular communities? An issue of language, unfamiliarity with the democratic process, or a lack of training by officials?” he said.

“First we need to fully understand the problem.”

Williams said he believed the AEC had done everything it could to ensure that votes in all communities were counted but it was clear that more support was needed.

A spokesperson for the Australian Electoral Commission said the final informal vote would not be known until all votes were counted.

The spokesperson said the AEC had taken steps to assist people for whom English is a second language.

“This included advertising in 33 languages, official guides delivered to all households and working with ethnic media and other third parties to spread messages about formality in-language,” they said.

The AEC also provided formality “flip-books” in all polling places with translated information, instructional posters in every polling place, had officials at polling places to relay instructions upon receipt of ballot papers, and instructions on the ballot papers themselves.

The large disparities in the informal vote across the nation will again spark concerns about compulsory preferential voting and the level of understanding among some groups of voters about the voting system.

A parliamentary committee recommended in 2020 that compulsory preferential voting should be replaced by optional preferential voting.

But this option, which has been introduced in New South Wales for state elections, has been strongly opposed by minor parties who depend on preference flows to have any chance of toppling major-party candidates.

The inflexibility on counting votes as valid, despite the voter’s intention being clear, also raises some serious issues about whether the voting system works against some groups.