Australia will be heading to the polls on May 21 this year after Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the election on Sunday.
This gives the almost 17 million of us registered to vote precisely 41 days to weather the political storm that is already underway.
Voting registers close seven days after the announcement of an election, so your first step should be to check out our guide here to ensure that you are properly registered to vote. The Australian Electoral Commission — the team in charge of elections — estimates that there are around 650,000 Aussies who are eligible to vote but have so far not done so. If you’re one of that cohort, make sure you enrol ASAP.
But what if you can’t attend a polling station on election day? Many of us will have holidays or other commitments that will make it difficult to get to the polls on May 21. Those who are immunocompromised, disabled, or have mental health conditions that make voting overwhelming may also wish to seek alternatives.
Failure to vote is still an offence, regardless of why you couldn’t make it. To ensure that you don’t get slapped with a fine, there are a number of options for how you can still vote without attending a polling station.
It’s worth noting that you can’t do any of the below unless you’re registered to vote, so tick that box first before continuing.
A postal vote is one of the most obvious and straightforward ways of voting without actually turning up on the day. The AEC have said that they expect more postal votes than normal this election, and are encouraging anyone who wants to vote by post to apply as soon as they can, to avoid delays and complications.
In order to vote by post, you need to be eligible, and the criteria is somewhat restrictive. You can be either outside the electorate where you are enrolled, need to travel more than 8kms to a polling station, be unable to leave work to vote, be physically unfit to attend (this includes people who have or will be about to give birth or their carer), are in prison, or have reasonable safety fears.
In order to apply for a postal vote, you’ll need to fill out an application which can be done online, through the mail, or at an AEC office.
A witness — someone on the electoral role — will need to verify they have seen your vote and their information will need to be included in the post.
Postal votes will be sent out on April 26 and have to be completed by May 21. They can arrive at an AEC office 13 days after the election but will have to be dated to at least prior to May 22.
A subcategory of postal voting, overseas voting is another kind of vote by mail specifically for those who will not be in the country during the election. In these cases, the process is somewhat more complicated than the above domestic postal voting process.
In order to be eligible for an overseas vote, you’ll need to be planning to return to Australia within the next six years and will have to register as an overseas elector.
If you’re leaving the country after May 9 but before May 21, it may be easier to apply for a postal vote or vote in person early.
You can apply for an overseas postal vote here.
During a recent ‘ask me anything’ thread on Reddit, AEC representatives stated that they are “in a sense, hostages to overseas postal systems and their handling times”.
“However, we’ve also been working very closely with DFAT for some time now to speed up the process where at all possible,” they reported.
“For most countries, when you’ve filled out your postal vote, you’ll be able to mail it back to an embassy instead of direct to the AEC. DFAT will then use diplomatic mail to get it back to Australia ASAP.”
If disaster should strike and you find yourself in COVID isolation on the day of the election, you can still vote over the phone three days before the polls close.
If you had planned to be voting in person, and can’t arrange a postal vote, this is your best option. However, it is designed as an emergency backup.
The system was built to allow those who are blind or have low vision to vote. It is not intended as an alternative to voting for those who simply don’t want to go to a polling station.
The AEC has warned that the system probably “won’t be smooth” and you will wait longer on the phone than you would at a polling station.
Phone voters will need to call to register (which can be done from May 9 until 12pm on May 21) and then call to vote from May 9 until 6pm on May 21. The number for both registration and voting is 1800 913 993.
Early voting stations will open two weeks before the election to give those who can’t be there on the day time to cast their ballot. The eligibility for pre-poll voting is similar to postal voting above, meaning not everyone can do it.
Early voting centres will be much quieter and could be a good option for those with disabilities or who are immunocompromised and don’t want to expose themselves to crowds. If this is you, the AEC have said they will have very strict COVID regulations in place across polling stations on the day. There are also numerous supports in place for people with disabilities.
Early voting centres will open in a limited number of locations — ie, fewer than regular polling stations — but should still be easy to find. The AEC has yet to announce where these will be, but they will post their list online soon.
Finally, the AEC has mobile voting teams that will be running outreach programmes for places like residential care homes as well as remote communities to ensure that people living in these places will be able to vote.
The AEC has confirmed that they will be unlikely to visit all aged care facilities and hospitals due to the COVID risk, and are advising those in these facilities to make other arrangements like the ones above.
40 AEC teams will visit 400 rural communities in the weeks leading up to the election, many of these being remote Indigenous communities.
The dates and locations of these visits have yet to be finalised but will be published here on the AEC website when they are.
It’s the Last Day You Can Order a Postal Vote
If you’ve been procrastinating ordering your postal vote by binging hours upon hours of baby bear videos, now’s the time to click off YouTube. This is because according to the ABC, you only have until 6:00pm tonight to apply to postal vote in this upcoming election.
Fortunately, the AEC will do everything in its power to make sure that your postal vote is delivered to you before May 21. As an AEC spokesperson told the ABC, “Postal votes are sent out by Priority Post through Australia Post.” This person also said, “For late postal vote applications, the AEC uses a courier service to ensure delivery happens even faster.”
However, while the folks at the AEC are legends, they aren’t literal superheroes. If you live in regional Australia or if you order your postal vote too late, they can’t break the speed of light in order for you to receive your materials. So, if you live out of town or can’t order a postal vote before 6:00pm tonight, it might be worth voting early. Or, if that’s impossible, you might have to vote in person on election day.