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Case study: Parallel elections

Updated: 18 October 2011
Photo of student voters at booths

Photo of student voters at booths

Research, including the AEC's Mobilise the franchise report, indicates that people who practise voting while they are young are more likely to be active voters as adults. In several countries with parliamentary democracies similar to Australia's, such as Canada, New Zealand and the United States, this knowledge has informed the development of 'parallel elections' as an educational tool for high school students.

Parallel elections are run in conjunction with actual elections (federal, state or local). The voting is usually held around a week before the actual electoral event.

A suitable place in the school is converted into a polling place, with voting screens, issuing tables, signage and a ballot box. The school roll is printed to resemble a certified list, and realistic ballot papers are prepared, listing the candidates for the electorate in which the school is located.

On polling day for the school, the activity within the venue closely resembles that in an actual polling place. Student volunteers are trained as polling officials and wear badges and bibs to identify their roles. Appointed queue controllers ensure that the process is orderly as student voters line up at the issuing tables, and a ballot box guard is in attendance.

Once the voting is complete, the ballot box is sealed and secured until the scrutiny takes place. Due to sensitivities surrounding release of results prior to the actual election, the scrutiny is best conducted soon after the real event. Student polling officials conduct the scrutiny, under the supervision of electoral officers, who then compile the results and draw up a comparison between the results of the parallel election and the actual result in that electorate.

During the 2010 federal election, the AEC conducted a pilot to test the potential benefits of 'parallel elections' in Australia. Because preparation time was limited, only two schools were selected to take part: St Aidan's Anglican Girls' School in Brisbane (Division of Moreton) and St Mary Mackillop College in Canberra (Division of Canberra).

The pilot exercise was well supported by teachers and students at both schools. Students were enthusiastic about taking on the roles of polling officials, and voter turnout was strong:

  • At the Brisbane school, which adopted compulsory voting for year 12 students, 70 students voted (81 per cent of those eligible and 100 per cent of those in attendance), with 100 per cent formality.
  • At the Canberra school, which made voting an optional lunchtime activity for students in years 10 and 11, 218 students voted (42 per cent of those eligible), with 80 per cent formality.

Students reported that they had enjoyed the election, and were particularly interested in the comparisons between their election outcomes and the results of the federal election. In both cases, distinct differences between the voting patterns within the school and across the electorate helped students to appreciate the role of young people in influencing election outcomes.

In terms of the value of the exercise, the students considered that:

  • Students who are soon to be eligible electors have little idea of the process, so they benefit from this 'run through'.
  • The parallel election should be compulsory for students in participating classes. Otherwise, the most disengaged students will be the ones who opt out.
Student emptying ballot box

Student emptying ballot box

Teachers reported that the exercise had been conducted smoothly and professionally, and was valuable in preparing students for civic responsibilities. Both schools commented that they would be willing to repeat the activity. One school also indicated that it would be willing to run the activity on its own, if staff received appropriate training and the AEC provided the election materials.

The AEC learned several important lessons about conducting parallel elections effectively, including:

  • The AEC could provide more materials to help teachers and students discuss the issues surrounding the election, so that students can relate the process of voting to having their say about an issue.
  • Voting should be compulsory for students in participating classes.
  • The delivery of election results and comparison of voting patterns could be managed by teachers trained to use data from the Virtual Tally Room.

The results of the pilot project confirm the potential for parallel elections to play a valuable part in the AEC's multifaceted strategy to raise the level of electoral participation in Australia.