Within 24 hours of the federal election being called some Australians began receiving application forms for postal votes. The mostly unmarked envelopes didn’t come from the electoral commission, but from local candidates and political parties which enclosed information about their policies and an addressed reply-paid envelope.
The practice is not new for political campaigners but, with increasing concerns about privacy and data collection, some voters are questioning a lack of transparency about exactly what they’re up to.
In many cases the envelopes have no branding and contain electioneering material. There’s nothing illegal in that – electoral legislation allows for a candidate or political party to send out postal vote applications and include material they wish to send to voters.
In the case of several Liberal candidate mailouts, the letters spruik Coalition policies and warn against Labor’s. They end with a “PS I’ve included Postal Vote forms if you’re unable to vote on polling day”.
When the voter sends the form back, the receiver is required to on-forward it to the electoral commission “as soon as practicable”, according to Phil Diak, the Australian Electoral Commission’s director of media and issues management.
“That’s the point where the involvement of the party or candidate ends. The AEC, having received the application, then sends the postal pack containing ballot papers direct to the voter.”
Voters can send their application forms directly to the AEC, Diak said, and the AEC was urging people to consider the material they received.
The concerns are around whether voters – particularly older people – are fully aware they are sending their forms back to political parties and what the parties are then doing with the information.
Prof Jay Wanna, an expert in Australian politics and public policy, said parties are “nudging forward” the allowable process in order to gather more data on local voters.
Addresses on the reply paid envelopes are sometimes vaguely identified and don’t clearly alert recipients they’ll be sending their form to a party campaign office, which Wanna said was not “in the spirit of the legislation”.
“The concern is people aren’t being asked, they’re being misled,” Wanna told Guardian Australia.
“There are 10 criteria [to be allowed a postal vote],” he said. The forms also sought security information to ensure people’s identity, such as “who they work for, where they were born. They get your mobile phone and your email address,” said Wanna.
Wanna said the most valuable information gained by the parties was likely people’s mobile phone numbers, particularly as many would be zoned by electorate.
The knowledge of who had applied to postal vote also allowed parties to plan doorknocking, he said.
Wanna also suspects candidates and parties sent out letters early. Scott Morrison called the election on the morning of 11 February, but Guardian Australia has been contacted by readers who received letters from their local MP or candidate as early as that afternoon.
Wanna said legislation needs to be amended – something which happens several times during a parliament – to tighten up requirements.
The independent MP Rebekha Sharkie told ABC radio she wants political parties removed from the postal voting process because “most people didn’t realise” they were sending their data to campaigns, not the commission.
Applications for postal votes close on 15 May, and ballot papers must be completed and witnessed on or before election day, on Saturday 18 May.