Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

A clear link between informal voting and low adult literacy and numeracy levels is denying thousands of Australians their democratic right to vote, says leading education expert Barry Golding.

Professor Golding, president of Adult Learning Australia, says research has directly linked the number of informal votes (incorrectly completed ballot papers) to low literacy levels.

Election officials fear a record three million Australians either won't vote or will cast an informal vote on September 7.

Figures show 900,000 people did not vote at the last federal election and about 700,000 spoiled their ballot papers resulting in informal votes.

“Australian Electoral Commission research(1) shows that two of the major sociological and institutional factors that influence informal voting are not being ‘fluent in English’ and having ‘low education attainment’, which is hardly a surprise when one considers that 44 percent of adult Australians are considered to be functionally illiterate(2),” Professor Golding says.

Only a very small proportion of voters cast informal ballots as a protest, with the majority of informal votes due to a lack of understanding of the voting process or difficulty interpreting the ballot paper instructions(3).

Functional illiteracy is defined as not having the literacy or numeracy skills to cope with everyday living - such as being able to read the instructions on a medicine bottle, follow a recipe or navigate the Internet.

Low adult literacy levels have a great impact on the lives of almost half the Australian adult population.

More funding for grass roots adult education is urgently needed to address Australia’s unacceptably high level of functional illiteracy, Professor Golding says.

“A strong democratic nation needs much better informed and literate electors, and the start point for this is addressing our extremely high levels of functional illiteracy,” he says.

“With the election result predicted to be incredibly close, there would be a certain irony if the predicted high number of informal votes were to impact on the outcome.”

With the federal election coinciding with Adult Learners’ Week, Professor Golding is urging both major parties to boost funding for adult education in a bid to improve literacy levels in Australia.

“There is a much bigger issue than the problem of adults with such low literacy skills that they cannot cope with the complexity of the election process,” he says.

“Even more Australians who are able to lodge a formal vote have such low prose and comprehension skills that they may not be able to read, properly access, or comprehend the media or make rational judgements about each party’s policies.”

On a brighter note, Professor Golding says there will be much to celebrate during Adult Learners’ Week, with about 1.6 million people starting or continuing their learning journey through 2,800 adult and senior education organistations nationally.

Adult Learners’ Week is the ideal time to explore the numerous educational alternatives on offer with events, information seminars and practical demonstrations taking place around the country from 1 to 8 September.

‘Learning Pathways’ is the theme for Adult Learners’ Week, which is held in more than 55 countries and coordinated nationally by Adult Learning Australia.

Visit or check out Adult Learners’ Week on Facebook to find out more about adult education options in your local area. Follow Adult Learning Austalia on twitter @ALA_inc.

(1) Medew R, 2003. Informal Vote Survey for the House of Representatives 2001, Australian Electoral Commission

(2) ABS, 15 February 2013. Australian Survey of Programmes for the internatinal assessment of adult competencies.

(3) Crikey Clarifier, 25 August 2010. The history of the informal vote in Australia



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