Joshua Bergamin is one of many Australians who don’t have to vote, but want to.
- There were more than 60,000 requests for absentee ballots abroad in the last election
- But only about 21,000 overseas postal votes were received by the AEC in time to be counted.
- Fewer embassies were open for face-to-face voting, due to COVID restrictions
Under federal election law, voting is compulsory for all eligible citizens of the country, but those abroad are exempt.
Dr Bergamin requested a postal vote from his temporary home in Austria as soon as the election was called on April 10.
“I was really excited about this election,” said the 39-year-old, who is working on a four-year postdoctoral research project at the University of Vienna.
With a business trip coming over the election weekend, he had a busy schedule and had reserved just enough time to drop off his postal ballot at the Australian Embassy in Vienna.
He was told his postal ballot was on its way from Australia on April 25 – two weeks after he applied.
The voting package finally arrived on Friday, May 20. But by then it was too late.
It was the day before the election and Dr. Bergamin had already left for his business trip.
Even though he had been at home in Vienna, the deadline for him to fill out his vote, have it testified, and turn it in to the embassy was when business closed that day.
Dr Bergamin said it was important for him to have a say and have a chance to announce the change.
“Having been back in Australia during the pandemic and re-engaging in Australian politics, I was very passionate about many issues – we are seeing the world change in such a massive way,” he said.
“Concretely, I pay taxes in Australia and I have a super in Australia, I have a HECS [HELP] debt. So who is in government affects my life, even if I am abroad.
Voting in person is no longer an option for many
Across the continent, Penelope Cain had a similar experience as she waited for her postal ballot package in The Hague, Netherlands.
Like Dr. Bergamin, she was eager to vote and requested a postal ballot as soon as she could, two days after the election was announced.
With just two weeks to go until election night and still no absentee ballot in sight, she responded to an automated email response from the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) saying she had no not received his package.
She then received a response which she said “must have been written by a bot or something”, indicating that she could vote in person.
“I went to see where you can vote in person and there are literally only two cities in all of Western Europe where you can vote,” Ms Cain said.
From his location in The Hague, it would have taken him a five-hour drive to the French Embassy or a six-hour drive to the High Commission in the UK to vote in person.
“I’ve been overseas for two elections before, and I’ve always voted locally in the country’s capital, so it’s a big surprise,” said Ms Cain, who works as an artist.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, overseas voters had the option of voting in person at Australian embassies or consulates. They could also request a postal vote.
But due to COVID-19, the list of locations offering in-person voting has been reduced this election.
According to the AEC website, just over 100 Australian embassies and consulates were offering postal service returns around the world, but only 19 opened for face-to-face voting – a stark contrast to 85 pitches in 2019.
Although small in number, an AEC spokesperson said the operational centers “served a proportionately larger portion of the local electoral communities than in the previous election”.
“Fewer travelers and more long-term overseas residents meant that a greater concentration of Australian registered overseas voters were in fewer places than before,” the spokesperson said.
So whose decision was it?
Several foreign voters who had missed the vote were contacted the CBA, frustrated with embassies that do not offer in-person voting services.
The ABC contacted several embassies and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) regarding the lack of in-person voting locations overseas, but was directed to the AEC.
The AEC said COVID made it “extraordinarily complex with decisions necessarily being made before an actual or potential rapid change in circumstances”.
“We have been working closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Austrade to identify locations overseas where voting could be offered in person,” the AEC spokesperson said.
“This included multiple risk assessments, regular engagement with overseas posts, monitoring adjustments to changing health orders and, more recently, adapting to growing security concerns in certain regions.”
As COVID restrictions have been eased in many countries, the AEC has also taken into account the risk that local health orders may change, which could complicate public messaging or lead to staff shortages.
How many people have fallen into the gap?
Plagued by a huge staffing challenge due to COVID, it took until late June for the AEC to officially finalize the election results.
The number of requests for absentee ballots – in Australia and overseas – has almost doubled in 2022 compared to the last federal election.
The The AEC received over 2.7 million applications this year compared to 1.5 million in 2019.
A total of 61,561 applications for absentee ballots were made by Australians overseas, around 10,000 more than in the last election.
Of these, 21,805 ballots were cast and formed part of the final tally.
Despite changes to out-of-country voting services, the return rate for out-of-country voting is around 40%, a slight increase of 2% from the last election.
The AEC said the actual return rate was likely to be higher as postal votes returned directly to Australia from overseas would not have been included in the overseas count.
Foreign voters who received a mail-in ballot package had several options for dropping it off:
- deliver in person to the nearest embassy or consulate
- post to the nearest embassy or consulate
- send directly to the AEC in Australia via a foreign postal service
Whichever method was used, in order for their vote to be counted, it had to be in the hands of AEC officials in Australia no later than 13 days after Election Day.
The AEC received an additional 17,558 votes from overseas polling stations in the 19 countries where face-to-face voting was available.
On paper, that leaves a shortfall of at least 22,000 votes.
But the actual number of missed opportunities remains unknown.
An AEC spokesperson said there were a number of reasons why overseas postal votes may not have been taken into account in the final tally, including:
- Votes not received at embassies by deadline
- Votes are not cast at all
- People voting at an early voting center before leaving Australia
- People requesting an absentee ballot but then voting in person at one of the 19 overseas polling stations
Call for better support for foreign voters
Instead of the missing in-person voting locations, the AEC said it made improvements to the postal voting service to meet the requirements of the electoral calendar.
Mail-in ballot packs were delivered directly to overseas voters by point-to-point couriers.
voters were encouraged to send them back to embassies and consulates, who would then send them to the ACS by diplomatic courier.
“Point-to-point mail and diplomatic return mail are two new solutions – firsts for this election that represent significant additional expense and effort for overseas voters in light of the pandemic,” the spokesperson said. of the AEC.
Dr Bergamin and Ms Cain said foreign voters could be better supported.
“Knowing that the international post seems to be [affected]we know you need to request your postal vote very early as it may be delayed,” Dr Bergamin said.
Cain, meanwhile, would like to see an upgrade to the infrastructure of the voting system.
“I think they could look at options to vote online or be able to download a form and vote… with a two-factor authentication system,” she said.
Telephone voting has also been made available to voters affected by COVID in Australia, and Ms Cain asked why the option had not been offered to those overseas.
Both wanted to see stronger support from embassies or an extended delay from the ACS due to international mail delays.
“Just because we live overseas doesn’t make us feel any less Australian,” Dr Bergamin said.
“In some ways we feel more Australian when we’re overseas, and we care about what’s going on and we care about how our country is perceived on the world stage.
“I think it’s really important for us to add our voice and perspective to the democratic process.”