'Voter apathy greatest threat to Territory democracy'


Polling station in the Aboriginal Karnte Camp south of Alice Springs during the 2012 election.

Sir – With one year to go until the 2020 Territory election apathy poses the greatest threat to democracy in the NT.
In the 2016 Territory election there were 135,506 electors on the roll, but only 100,304 of those turned out and voted.
More than 2000 of those who did vote didn’t have their votes counted because they were informal.
Surveys of ballots also found that 80% of the informal votes cast were done so intentionally.
We find ballot papers with all sorts of messages and creative images scribbled over them.
Subtract the informal votes from the turnout figure and that means only 72% of enrolled voters had their say at the 2016 poll.
That rate looks far worse when considering the accuracy of the Territory electoral roll.
According to ABS statistics it is estimated that there are a further 25,000 Territorians missing from the electoral roll. About 16,000 of those are Aboriginal.
Adding those 25,000 to the roll figure of 135,506 would mean that the actual voter turnout of 100,304 in 2016 was just 62% or eligible voters.
The 25,000 people missing was the equivalent to nearly five NT electorates.
The figures are both revealing and concerning. The electoral boundaries in the Territory may look very different if those missing electors were on the roll.
The 2016 Territory election was the first time that we had a division that had an elector turnout of less than 50%. That was in the bush electorate of Arnhem.
And just recently, the two Territory electorates of Lingiari and Solomon produced the worst and second-worst turnouts in the country at the May Federal election.
That gap between the bush and the urban areas in terms of roll accuracy is widening.
The Australian Electoral Commission’s automatic enrolment update system works well in urban areas but it doesn’t operate in rural and remote areas.
The roll wasn’t the only issue confronting the NT Electoral Commission in terms of voter participation.
There is consistently low voter participation in remote communities. We have conducted surveys and the responses we have received are quite disheartening.
When asked their views on voting, an overwhelming response we have received is: “Why bother? Nothing changes.”
People need to get on the roll and when they do they need to participate in the process. Because if the people who live in the Territory don’t care about the Territory, who will?
The next Northern Territory general election will be held on 22 August, 2020. Enrol to vote online at www.ntec.nt.gov.au
Iain Loganathan
NT Electoral Commissioner


  1. Mandatory voting is in itself an infringement of one’s freedom. And what is more important than freedom? It is the one true human right.
    Those who choose not to vote are exercising an (illegal) right that should be respected.
    Perhaps some people realise that Government is not the be-all and end-all. It is just a bureaucracy.
    People can run their own “government” and their own lives within their own family home and community.
    “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others,” said Winston Churchill.

  2. The figures are disturbing. I understand that the Commonwealth defunded the team who used to go out and enrol people in remote areas, with the above results.
    One of the strengths of our democracy, in contrast to that of other countries and the USA in particular, is compulsory voting. Perhaps we need a better system for enforcing it, such as linking electoral registration to the tax file number for example?
    After all, casting a ballot still allows for the protest vote, which perhaps should be formally published if it is 80% of “informal” votes. When I have written “a pox on all your houses” across my ballot paper I have intended it as a message to the politicians and the system: That I have not been offered a candidate worthy of my vote, it would be nice to know that protest was being tallied.

  3. It’s great everyone having a vote. The trouble is when the vote is coming from someone who is uninformed and simply votes based on what they have been told by old mate ‘Fred’ which might or might not be based on facts.
    Would be good to have unbiased forums and information sessions held in communities pointing out the differences on who you are voting for.
    And not a system where they vote who they are told to by old mate who tells them how to vote at the front door.

  4. Well said, Interested Darwin Observer.
    Stop mandatory voting. If people are not interested in voting so be it.
    Also stop preferences. One vote for one candidate.
    This should apply to both State and Federal elections.

  5. I think I am correct in asserting that NT Aboriginal people, once denied the vote, were given the right to enrol in the 1960s – well before the 67 referendum – and, once enrolled, voting for them was compulsory, as is the general rule in Australia. They are not compelled to enrol, so if they are not on the rolls that’s their fault
    All enrolled voters are compelled to vote, even if they want to submit an informal vote.
    My mother always voted informally: “Don’t encourage them,” she would say. That was her statement to the pollies: “You don’t impress me.”
    I don’t advocate informal voting and to informal voters I say: “Don’t complain about the government: it’s put there by voters. You had your chance.”
    If registered voters do not vote, even informally, they incur a fine.
    So I would suggest to the Electoral Commission they take steps to impose those fines next time round. It should be a good earner?
    People carry on about discrimination, but the voting power of the people is what determines our political outcomes.

  6. @ Ted Egan (Posted August 23, 2019 at 10:54 am): My understanding is that Aboriginal people (ie. “full bloods” as opposed to people of mixed race descent who could vote from 1953) gained the right to vote in the NT in 1962, however it was non-compulsory. This remained the case until comparatively recent times, as I recall.
    The first elections that all Aboriginal people could vote in was for the NT Legislative Council in December 1962. The Labor candidate for Stuart, DD Smith, was the first person in Australia to advertise his campaign over radio in an Aboriginal language (Arrernte) – he got Milton Liddle to speak in language for him.
    Smith won the seat from long-serving member Bill Petrick, who unsuccessfully objected to the result on the basis that only English could be used in an election campaign.

  7. “Why bother? nothing changes.” Therefore I don’t care?
    As the old saying goes, we can lead a horse to water but we can’t make it drink. A similar sentiment applies to registered voters, not everyone is interested in politics.
    I am sure if someone self motivates to enrol they will care and generally endeavour to vote.
    However, someone coerced or talked into enrolling might care about their locality but not about the choice of potential politicians, the territory or the political system.
    Consequently they will probably not vote unless pushed to the ballot box and even then may only cast an informal vote.
    And don’t forget about the large turnover of the Territory population, here today, gone tomorrow and not a care in the world. So if you don’t care why enrol and potentially cop a fine after every election?

  8. “Why bother? nothing changes.” Therefore I don’t care?
    It is a wrong statement because everything is changing in the NT, but alas not for the best.

  9. A string of Territory governments themselves have posed a threat to democracy, not Aboriginal people from the bush by not voting.
    There are backstabbing and all sorts of power plays, shafting and dumping left right and centre including that of people who were voted into government by Aboriginal people to represent them.
    All that does not instil any measure of confidence or trust in government, particularly with people from the bush who are aware that monies that should go to bush programs, are funnelled into all sorts of projects in Darwin.
    So this is probably why people of the bush don’t care to vote anymore.

  10. Some great comments here.
    I too believe in compulsory voting, but on the condition that an addition box be included on ballot papers, reading: “NONE OF THE ABOVE”.
    This would give the disenfranchised voter the opportunity to register their dissatisfaction with the crops of candidates on offer, surely a vital part of any so-called democracy.
    If a majority votes “None Of The Above”, then fresh elections may be called with, of course, fresh candidates.

  11. @ Domenico Pecorari (Posted August 23, 2019 at 8:44 pm): Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this but occasionally it’s been my practice to spoil my ballots by adding an extra box labelled Informal or None of the above, and voting for it.
    These days I think “Informal” would end up being the most popular candidate in every election campaign, which is possibly a reason why politicians would be reluctant to include it on the ballot slips!
    An update to my previous reply to Ted Egan, I noticed a reference that enrolment and voting was made compulsory for all Aboriginal people in the NT (at least for Territory elections) in the early years of self-government so this situation has existed much longer than I realised.

  12. There is another way you could vote … with your feet!
    I too became totally dismayed with the ever increasing bigotry and racism, having lived nearly all my life in Alice Springs. So I packed up the family and left.
    Did that a little over 30 years ago now and haven’t looked back.
    Has lots of benefits that come with feet-voting as well: salaries, services and facilities are on the whole better outside the Territory. As are less stressors, less narrow-mindedness and less discrimination, to mention but a few.
    Additionally, costs of travel, living and access to current medical facilities are so much improved by voting with your feet.
    Too easy; just vote with your feet.

  13. Seriously, it is government, or more particularly politicians who put at risk the very essence of our democracy.
    Politicians listen to their constituents once every electoral cycle, when they need our vote!
    After that they pretty much run their own and their party’s agendas. Any wonder there is public apathy and cynicism. Quite why the Commissioner is surprised simply amazes me.
    If Australia had the Swiss system where citizen initiated referenda occur up to four times a year then we would have a much higher form of true direct democracy with less influence by lobbyists (often retired politicians) and special interest groups on the political process.
    However, the Swiss system requires a much more involved and educated populace.
    Here we rely on compulsory voting to suggest “authenticity” and authority to the electoral process. Sadly the writer, Iain Loganathan of the NT Electoral Commission, relies too much on enrolment numbers as an end in itself.


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