By Prasuna Reddy, Director of Social Issues and Susie Burke, APS Research Officer

It’s election year in more ways than one, and in more places than just Australia! There have already been elections in many parts of the world, and the world’s largest democracy, India, with 605 million eligible voters, is going through one now. Australia and Indonesia will have elections later in the year; and in November, America goes to the poll in the crucial, and much anticipated, presidential elections. And of course, in October this year, there are the annual APS elections!

This article is a call to members to help us understand a puzzling phenomenon – the low voter participation at APS elections – and to increase the numbers of members who participate in APS elections. Look at the figures tabled below for voter numbers pertaining to the last three APS elections.

APS Voter Numbers

Year No. of APS voters eligible
to vote
No. of APS voters who did vote Per cent
of votes
Per cent of informal votes
2003 11,669 552 4.73 2.17
2002 10,706 621 5.80 5.30
2001 10,464 530 5.06 10.00

 

We have shown improvement in our record of informal votes; our voter turnout, though, has been remarkably low for a Society of our size. In September 2004, we are likely to have candidates contesting for several APS Board positions, including President. Is there anything we can do to improve voter participation in this year’s APS elections? Or, should we settle for the possibility that abstention at APS elections is merely a reflection of a general trend, over recent years, of the decline in the levels of participation in elections in democratic societies?

The Electoral Commission statistics for the United Kingdom show that turnout at the June 2001 general election was only 59.4 per cent, and even lower at local elections. In the United States Presidential election in November 2000, only 55 per cent of the voting–age population voted. Australia looks much better in terms of voter participation: in the 2001 National elections, the Australian Electoral Commission claims voter turnout was 95 per cent.

Of course, the major reason for this is that Australia has compulsory voting, which serves to maintain high voting turnout. Remember, it is only registration and attendance at a polling place that is compulsory; citizens still have the choice of participation. Would voter turnout in Australia be lower if we did not use mandatory voting? In the Australian Election Study (Jones, McAllister & Gow, 1996), in response to the question “Would you have voted in the election if voting had not been compulsory?”, 67 per cent of respondents said they would “definitely” vote. Even without resorting to debate about the relationship between intention and behaviour, this might be an optimistic figure. Indeed, if we take APS voting rates as an indication of interest in voluntary voting, it is probably not a good idea for Australia to alter its compulsory voting system.

Why don’t some people vote?

In the 2000 US election, of the 130 million people who registered to vote, 14 per cent did not actually vote (US Census Bureau, 2002). The most common reasons given for not voting were:

  • Too busy or had conflicting work or school schedules;
  • Illness, disability, or family emergency;
  • Not interested or felt their vote would not make a difference;
  • Out of town, had transportation problems, bad weather;
  • Didn’t like candidates or campaign issues;
  • Confusion or uncertainty about registration; and
  • Forgot to vote, or found it inconvenient to vote.

How relevant are these reasons for members who did not vote in the APS elections? We canvassed the views of the current Board of Directors; what had they heard from APS members about voter participation? One set of problems does seem to involve confusion or uncertainty about voting procedures. For instance, some members did not know where to find descriptions of candidates or the voting papers. Others were uncertain about how to vote or when to vote. Others intended to vote, but forgot, or could not find a postage stamp, or lost the ballot papers. We have addressed some of these concerns in the documents for this year’s APS election:

  • Voting papers will be mailed to members (with the Annual Report) in early September, about four weeks before the AGM (not in InPsych). Descriptions of candidates are provided with the voting papers and will also be available on the APS website.
  • APS Board of Directors elections are conducted by postal ballot (we do not have online voting) and this year voting papers are being sent out with reply–paid return envelopes. Members may vote by completing the voting papers and mailing them to the Society’s National Office or by placing the envelope in the box provided at the Annual Conference. Voting closes the day before the Annual General Meeting. Members cannot vote by proxy.
  • If voting papers are lost, members can request replacement voting papers from the APS National Office.

These problems are, however, minor ones. By far, the most significant barrier to voter participation seems to be not knowing enough about the positions that are open for election, or about the candidates, to feel that one can make an informed decision. A related issue is the small number of candidates for each position. We usually have only one or two nominations for each position; members may be reluctant to nominate without sufficient knowledge about the duties, tasks, and time commitments of a Director’s position. What can be done about these concerns?

  • InPsych will feature brief articles by Directors about various Board positions. If you wish to nominate for a position, it would be worthwhile contacting a previous Director, or the Executive Director, to find out what the position involves. The APS National Office holds detailed information about Directorates and procedures for nomination that can be accessed by potential candidates. Call for Nominations are made in an insert distributed with this issue of InPsych. Each year, four or five positions are up for election.
  • Information about candidates and their responses to a standard set of questions are provided with the voting papers mailed to members along with the Annual Report. This information will also be available on the APS website.

Often, even reading the detailed description provided by the candidate doesn’t seem to be enough to differentiate between the merits of different candidates. Members are also welcome to ask questions about tasks and candidates from their colleagues, peers, APS networks, the APS National Office, or consider contacting the candidate him or herself to ask their point of view or position on issues that you consider important. Directors should, however, be considered as capable of representing the best interests of the Society at large, not special groups or positions.

While these efforts may make voting easier and the process more understandable, we have not adequately addressed the most difficult issue in voter participation in any election – apathy. Voluntary abstention may reflect an individual’s lack of knowledge or a lack of interest with electoral processes. We might improve knowledge, but it does not follow that informed people will show a burning desire to vote.

How can we make voting in APS elections more appealing? The question is an important one for the APS and this Directorate in particular. Through the Directorate of Social Issues, we try to increase people’s awareness of issues that are important in our society, such as social exclusion, violations of human rights, and inequality. Some psychologists argue that working to advance human wellbeing in the public arena is a matter of professional responsibility. Elections provide a two–fold means of exercising such responsibility. On the one hand, voting is a form of active participation in the democratic process as a way of promoting democracy. Voting is also a form of active participation in the issues that affect us and the people around us. Having your say, whether through active participation in the APS, or through participation in the leadership of the Society, are both important ways that psychologists can make a difference in the public arena.

Here is an opportunity for you to contribute to the collective wisdom of the Society, including an understanding of why members do or do not vote in APS elections. Please send your letters to: p.reddy@psychsociety.com.au.