29/07/2016 - 13:45

Additional voters a wild card

29/07/2016 - 13:45

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WA’s belated adoption of changes to voter registration requirements has opened up a new challenge for the major parties ahead of the March 2017 poll.

Additional voters a wild card
ATTACK: The Labor Party under Mark McGowan needs to win 10 seats in March. Photo: Attila Csaszar

WA’s belated adoption of changes to voter registration requirements has opened up a new challenge for the major parties ahead of the March 2017 poll.

The imminent addition of more than 170,000 names to the Western Australian electoral roll represents the biggest change in the composition of voters for almost 50 years.

And it makes predicting the result of the state election in March, based on the results of the 2013 poll and the swing the Labor Party needs to topple the Liberal-National government, harder than ever.

Based on the recent redistribution of electoral boundaries, Mark McGowan’s Labor needs to win 10 seats from the Liberals and Nationals. The new electorate of Bicton is notionally a Liberal seat with a 10 per cent margin. It is also (on paper) the government’s 10th most vulnerable seat.

But the unprecedented influx of new voters in late August threatens the validity of such projections.

The last major change in the composition of the roll occurred in the lead up to the 1971 election, when Liberal premier Sir David Brand legislated to lower the voting age from 21 years to 18.

The result? The Brand government was defeated by the John Tonkin-led Labor Party by just one seat, ending Sir David’s record 12-year term as premier, during which he presided over the emergence of the Pilbara iron ore province.

Now, the Barnett government has agreed to simplify how people of voting age get on to the roll, removing the requirement that they complete a registration form to be included.

Legislation passed in the dying days of the autumn session removed the distinction between the federal and state rolls. Since 2013, voters have been automatically added to the federal roll when the bureaucracy has deemed them eligible. New voters have then been advised of the move, and expected to participate from then on.

WA had, until recently, resisted the change.

The ‘direct enrolment’ means tens of thousands of voters will be on the state roll for the first time. They will also be joined by thousands of former voters removed from the roll after they changed addresses without notifying the commission of their new abodes. In such cases, once the commission confirmed they had moved without a forwarding address, their names were scrubbed.

However, computerisation of government federal and state record keeping makes it easier to confirm ‘mobile citizens’ are still in WA, and the rolls will be amended accordingly.

WA electoral commissioner David Kerslake expects the new voters to be roughly equally distributed across the 59 Legislative Assembly seats, an average of about 3,000 extra decision makers for each electorate with a roll of about 28,000.

But that’s not the only change. Just as early voting proved increasingly popular in the federal poll, it’s likely many voters will cast their ballots ahead of polling day next year, particularly because unlike the federal requirements they won’t need a special reason to vote early (such as working on polling day or being out of the country).

Mr Kerslake noted that 31 per cent of all votes cast in the 2014 Vasse by-election to replace former treasurer Troy Buswell were early, and he expects the trend to continue.

This will not be lost on the parties when it comes to unveiling their policies. When early voting can start up to three weeks before polling day, parties that hold back unveiling vote-catching policies do so at their peril.

Mr Kerslake also believes it is only a matter of time before modern technology is introduced into the system.

“There is a limit to how long parliaments can hold out against internet voting, so why not get on with it and give it a trial, with a view to the future,” he said.

However, the immediate challenge for the parties will be identifying the new voters, especially in tight seats, and then start the process of wooing them. Winning in March is the prize.

 

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