8 August 2017

Electoral Reform - a forum for dangerous ideas, or foxes in the hen house?

| Matt Donnelly
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ACT Legislative Assembly

The newly expanded Legislative Assembly now has the resources to dedicate itself to the question of how to get more from the ACT voter! An inquiry has commenced into electoral reform in the ACT.

Submissions are in and, unsurprisingly, the Greens and Labor want more regulation. The Liberal opposition couldn’t seem to muster a response. The Canberra Times, for their part, reported on the bad and the insane, but not the surprising.

What the Canberra voter didn’t get told in all the fuss, was that a new and sensible idea was proposed that keeps the ACT as the progressive ideas hub that we all know it can be. That idea is None of the Above (NOTA) voting, and it was proposed by the ACT Liberal Democrats.

While the Liberal Democrats oppose compulsory voting outright, we believe if people must turn up and have their name checked off – the least they ought to be able to do is go in and clearly say “No to you all”; the proverbial vote with a middle finger, if you will.

So what’s the difference between NOTA and an informal vote? Voting NOTA is a choice. It’s not a mistake or a prank or “throwing your vote away”. It’s the ultimate democratic expression of how effective political campaigns are at truly engaging a voter to express their will. A NOTA vote is a purposeful protest. It cannot be washed away as a historical footnote.

A stated objective of the inquiry’s terms of reference is to improve voter engagement. This forces me to ask: Why is voter engagement so important to the political class? Could it be that the funding tied to a vote is the lifeblood of political incumbency?

Alarmingly, the ACT provides funding per vote at 3 times the federal rate. The exercise of a vote to a party who gets more than 4% returns funding of $8.00 for that first preference! For the last election, Canberran taxpayers forked out over $1.7 million – mostly to Labor, the Liberals and the Greens – compared to about $409,000 in 2012.

Has the inquiry missed the point on voter engagement? Isn’t it the job of political parties to preselect candidates or develop policy that will energise a constituency? If campaigns fail in basic politics 101, why do they deserve to be rewarded on name recognition alone? Surely the question of voter engagement in a compulsory voting paradigm has to be about the quality of voter engagement, not the raw data on informality of ballots.

A NOTA vote is a clear preference not to endorse any candidate. This helps to ensure that candidates won’t be lazy. They have the obligation to convince people that they are worthy of their vote.

The inclusion of a NOTA option in our elections is the right approach because:

  1. It requires political parties to have rigourous policy and credible candidates who build confidence in a constituency.
  2. It reduces the pressures on public political funding.
  3. It offers the clearest expression of voter intent, without a voter needing to understand laws around vote formality.
  4. It is a simple change, with little to no public expenditure to achieve it.

What it does require is courage and confidence that candidates have the ability to persuade and convince a community, to earn the right and privilege to represent them.

So what do you think, Rioters? Is a NOTA option good for democracy in the ACT?

To enjoy the good, the bad, and the downright strange, the submissions to the inquiry are available at: https://www.parliament.act.gov.au/in-committees/select_committees/2016-ACT-Election-and-Electoral-Act/inquiry-into-the-operation-of-the-2016-act-election-and-the-electoral-act

Matt Donnelly was a Liberal Democrats candidate for the Senate in the 2016 federal election, and ran in Brindabella in the 2016 ACT election.

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That’s very nice of the ACT MLA’s to award themselves public funding at such a generous rate, vs the federal scheme. Actually, I’m a bit torn on this. I don’t like political donations which tend to behold parties to their donors, but I don’t like spending too much public $ either. Ideally, campaigns should be cheap, with MLA’s relying on their record which should stand on its own, rather than needing to remind us with propaganda.

Grail, you raise a couple of interesting points – although I think your suggested public funding system is waaaay too generous to the incumbents.

On how NOTA would affect the vote, wouldn’t it just be treated the same way as an informal vote – ie remaining formal votes would just be distributed in the normal way. If there was a huge NOTA vote – that would put a dent in claims by the winner that they had a clear mandate. Sounds like a good thing to me – Barr claimed all sorts of things he said had a mandate for (eg 100% renewables) last election night but his party only had a bit over a third of the total (formal and informal) first preference vote.

bd84 – you can’t “draw a penis or write a poem” electronically, all you can really do is leave an electronic vote blank or lose your bar code. Electronic voting was a third of the vote last year – why not have a way of expressing your distaste for the candidates by a none of the above option?

I like the idea of NOTA, but it needs to be combined with some consequences, otherwise it’s just informal under a different name.

I prefer the idea put I heard from a friends father many years ago – voluntary voting, but where the number of formal votes must be some proportion of the eligible voles – say 50% plus one. That way we can have NOTA, but where no-one is elected and the place is run under existing legislation – maybe with a caretaker government in case these is an actual emergency.

This can work – just look at the Netherlands where the country can continue for months between an election and the formation of a government.

All you’re required to do is show up to vote, you can do whatever you want with the voting form. You could leave it blank, draw a penis or write a poem if you really wanted to. All would provide $0 to any candidate or party.

For every perceived problem there is a solution which is simple, elegant, and completely wrong.

You are conflating the issues of mandatory voting having no option to abstain, and the issue of primary votes being rewarded with electoral funding.

A “NOTA” option will lead to the incumbents modifying the rules such that a fixed bucket of funding is split based on proportion of primary votes cast. The easiest way to remove the largesse of funding per vote to get rid of that funding model. Simply allocate a certain level of funding to the top five parties able to attract more than 10% of the vote. No proportionality, limit the opportunities to game the system by splitting a popular party into fragments in order to gather more funding, etc.

As for the NOTA vote itself, how will that affect elections? Do they get discounted, so quota is only based on votes for actual candidates? Or do we demand a quorum such that an election is invalid if too many voters vote NOTA?

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