Ballot papers are still being mailed out, but a few key lessons have already emerged from the Turnbull government’s $122 million postal survey on same-sex marriage.
Less than a fortnight into the voluntary national ballot, which runs until November 7, the first thing apparent is that the Australian electoral roll is a mess.
The second issue is one long-suffering apartment residents have long complained about – that delivery standards of Australia Post’s dying letters business fall well short of the expectations of customers, despite claims from an executive team paid millions to the contrary.
Thirdly, the survey result, as a consequence, is now in danger of looking as credible as the Saddam Hussein’s 100% unanimous vote in Iraq’s 2002 election, which, depending on how willing you are to reach for a conspiracy theory, may well be the result the vote’s political advocates were seeking in the first place.
Delivery of the ballot papers still has a week to run, but already the media is awash with stories of dumped and/or undelivered letters. A Melbourne teacher found a stash of 17 unopened letters behind her carport, addressed to houses in the surrounding streets.
“Keep it safe” it says on the front of the envelope.
On the weekend, ABC reporter James Fettes posted several images on Twitter of survey envelopes lying strewn around letterboxes in Canberra saying he spoke to a neighbour who says this happens “regularly”.
— James Fettes (@JamesFettes) September 15, 2017
Fettes said he found “dozens” of survey envelopes in Braddon left wet from rain and on the ground outside seven different apartment blocks on Saturday morning. It seemed that the mail was placed on top of the mailboxes rather than inside them.
An Australia Post spokesperson told the ABC she was “confident” that the posties had delivered the survey letters securely and the police should be called if anyone suspects their mail is being tampered with.
But back to the electoral roll. We received four ballot papers yesterday at our Sydney address, home to two registered voters. From what we’ve seen, that’s a far from isolated incident.
And what it also indicates is that despite more than 800,000 of Australia’s 16 million voters updating the details before the roll was closed, many did not.
What surprises me most about that is the former residents of our house left two years ago. How many Australians are in a similar situation if this vote inspired 5% of voters to update their records?
It’s impossible to tell — and perhaps the sheer weight of averages will smooth out all the discrepancies — but the volume of similar anecdotes at this early stages is alarming.
Our house has done as the ABS requested with the two extraneous ballot papers and marked the envelopes “Not known at this address, return to sender” and posted them back.
But right now social media is awash with people holding wads of ballot papers in their hands – and more alarmingly, comments from supporters on both sides of the debate urging them to fill out the surplus papers and post them back.
There are even reports of the ballots being offered for sale.
— AEC (@AusElectoralCom) September 19, 2017
The problem appears so widespread that ABS deputy statistician, Jonathan Palmer, who is leading a team overseeing the survey roll out, issued a warning on the weekend that it was a criminal offence to tamper with someone else’s mail, even if it’s incorrectly addressed.
“If you receive a survey form not addressed to you, do the right thing and just return it to sender. It’s illegal to open others’ mail, unless you have their express permission as a trusted person,” he said.
“Stealing or tampering with mail is a criminal offence that carries serious penalties.”
But here’s the rub in a debate where both sides push the boundaries in an attempt to gain advantage.
The ABS says on the accompanying letter accompany the ballot paper that “Your response is confidential, by law. It cannot be connected to you. The ABS will destroy all information collected after the survey.”
If so, what’s to stop widespread rorting of the vote when less scrupulous people think it’s anonymous? Anyone on Twitter is well aware of how quickly morality evaporates under the guise of anonymity.
Yes there’s a bar code, and the ABS says that from September 25, they’ll issue replacement ballot papers to anyone who requests them. The previous form will be invalidated and “if it has been received its response will not be counted”, but that requires a lot of motivation on the part of voters who need to follow up on a voluntary ballot in order to police the integrity of the system.
And the voluntary nature of this ballot is the big “if” in the result of this survey. If less than half of eligible voters – around 8 million – respond, you can bet the losing side will discount the result as ignoring the “silent majority”.
If the result is close, you can bet the losing side will point to the litany of stories about lost ballot papers as proof of tampering by their opponents.
How big will the win have to be in order to be emphatic?
The government put the postal vote up as a Plan B after the senate twice rejected its plan for a national, compulsory plebiscite and while it will continue to blame the Labor opposition for thwarting its plans, it proceeded with the voluntary postal vote on the basis that it would provide clarity on the future direction of the issue and unite the nation.
Instead, it’s starting to look like an even bigger mess over an issue that’s already divided the country and until November 7, looks like it will continue to be a bitter national debate.
* This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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