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Boost civics education to address voter disengagement, says committee

Confusion about how Victoria’s preferential voting system works is preventing electors’ voices being properly heard, says a parliamentary committee.

Informal votes, which cannot be counted, have risen for the lower house at each of the state’s five previous elections, reaching 5% in 2014.

While some are deliberate donkey votes, the committee believes around half are mistakes. Nearly one quarter of informal voters only wrote a ‘1’, and around 8% mistakenly put ticks or crosses.

To combat a lack of awareness about how the political system works, the parliamentary Electoral Matters Committee has made 36 recommendations for improving civics and electoral participation in Victoria.

“Whilst the committee believes that civics and public understanding of the way our democracy works is a significant issue, unfortunately there is not wide public awareness of how our political system actually works,” said committee chair Louise Asher.

Certain seats had particularly high informal vote rates. Those above 8% are in low socio-economic status suburban areas which mostly have high migrant populations, including Broadmeadows, Dandenong, Frankston, Melton and Tarneit.

The committee is also concerned about youth disengagement. Although by international standards Victoria has pretty high electoral participation rates, young people are still lagging behind their seniors.

At the 2014 Victorian state election approximately 89% of voters aged 18-25 voted, compared with 93% of all Victorian voters. And it’s not just the youngest demographic — participation rates for 26-35s are actually slightly lower than 18-25s.

The introduction of direct enrolment — where the electoral commission enrols you itself based on information from other government agencies — has boosted numbers in recent years. Now over 95% of all eligible Victorian voters are enrolled with the Victorian Electoral Commission.

The committee sees lower youth participation as stemming from two things: disengagement from formal political processes — whether out of apathy or engagement with other forms of political expression — and a lack of understanding of political processes.



 

The committee travelled to New Zealand and Canada to examine their civics programs and find ideas to strengthen Victoria’s.

Most of the recommendations in the committee’s report are targeted to the VEC, but there are also a number of recommendations for the government and the parliament to consider.

This includes bolstering the electoral commission’s primary civics program, Passport to Democracy.

“The committee believes that, whilst the VEC’s Passport to Democracy program has its strengths, there are significant opportunities to expand its use, for example by integrating a student vote project into the program and by fostering greater use of the program,” Asher said.

“The VEC could also undertake more extensive work with the Department of Education and Training to support students participating in school council elections, for example by providing collateral similar to state election material.”

The committee has also suggested further reporting to parliament on enrolment rates of 18-24 year olds and on informal voting.

“The committee has offered what we hope are some helpful suggestions on recruiting younger people to work for the VEC to assist in the conduct of elections and has also suggested some ways in which older people could be recruited to the positions they have traditionally held in the administration of elections.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.