Joshua Bergamin wanted to vote from overseas, but it wasn’t an easy process

Joshua Bergamin is one of many Australians who doesn’t have to vote, but wants to. 

Under federal electoral law, voting is compulsory for all eligible citizens in the country, but those overseas are exempt. 

Dr Bergamin applied for a postal vote from his temporary home in Austria as soon as the election was called on April 10. 

“I was really excited about this election,” said the 39-year-old who is working on a four-year postdoctoral research project at the University of Vienna. 

With a business trip coming up over election weekend, he was running a tight schedule and had carved out just enough time to drop off his postal vote at the Australian embassy in Vienna.

He was told his postal vote was on the way from Australia on April 25 — two weeks after he applied.

The voting package finally arrived on Friday, May 20. But by then it was too late.

It was the day before the election, and Dr Bergamin had already left for his business trip.

Even if he had been at home in Vienna, the deadline for him to fill in his vote, get it witnessed and deliver it to the embassy was the close of business that day.

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Composite image of Kirsty McBain in red jacket, Penny Wong in black jacket and Richard Marles in black jacket. Red background.Composite image of Kirsty McBain in red jacket, Penny Wong in black jacket and Richard Marles in black jacket. Red background.Read more

Dr Bergamin said it’s important for him to have a say and have a chance at heralding change. 

“Having been back in Australia during the pandemic, and re-engaging with Australian politics, I was very passionate about many issues — we’re seeing the world change in such a massive way,” he said.

“On a practical level, I pay tax in Australia and I have super in Australia, I have a HECS [HELP] debt. So who’s in government does affect my life, even if I’m overseas. 

In-person voting no longer an option for many

Woman stands in front of a background with flowers and a bicycleWoman stands in front of a background with flowers and a bicycle
After two years in prolonged lockdown, Penelope Cain moved from Sydney to Europe, following opportunities for contract work.(Supplied: Penelope Cain)

Across the continent, Penelope Cain had a similar experience as she awaited her postal vote package in The Hague, Netherlands. 

Like Dr Bergamin, she was eager to cast her vote and applied for a postal vote as soon as she could, two days after the election was announced. 

With just two weeks left until election night and still no postal vote in sight, she replied to an automated email response from the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) saying she had not received her package.

She then received a reply that she said “must have been written by a bot or something”, which flagged that she could vote in person.

“I went and looked at where you can vote in person and there’s literally only two cities in all western Europe that you can vote in,” Ms Cain said. 

From her location in The Hague, it would have taken her either a five-hour drive to the embassy in France or a six-hour journey to the high commission in the United Kingdom to cast a vote in person.

“I’ve been been overseas for two elections previously, and I’ve always just voted locally in the capital city of the country, so it’s a big surprise,” Ms Cain, who works as an artist, said.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, overseas voters had the option to cast a vote in person at Australian embassies or consulates. They could also apply for a postal vote.

But due to COVID-19, the list of locations offering in-person voting was reduced this election. 

According to the AEC website, just over 100 Australian embassies and consulates offered postal service returns worldwide, but only 19 opened their doors for face-to-face voting — a stark contrast from 85 locations in 2019

While reduced in number, an AEC spokesperson said the operational centres “serviced a proportionately larger section of local voting communities than they did in the previous election”. 

“Less travellers and more long-term overseas residents meant that a larger concentration of registered overseas Australian voters were in fewer locations than previously,” the spokesperson said.

So whose decision was it?

Several overseas voters who had missed out on voting contacted the ABC, frustrated by embassies not offering in-person voting services.

The ABC contacted several embassies and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) regarding the lack of in-person voting locations overseas, but was directed to the AEC. 

The AEC said COVID made it “extraordinarily complex with decisions necessarily made ahead of a real or potential rapid change in circumstances”. 

“We worked closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Austrade to determine the locations overseas where voting could be offered in-person,” the AEC spokesperson said. 

“This included multiple risk assessments, regular engagement with overseas posts, monitoring adjustments to changing health orders and more recently adapting to growing security issues in some regions.”

While COVID restrictions have been relaxed in many countries, the AEC also factored in the risk that local health orders could change, which could complicate public messaging or result in staff shortages. 

A young woman with long blonde hair wears a blue surgical mask on an Amsterdam streetA young woman with long blonde hair wears a blue surgical mask on an Amsterdam street
People walking with and without masks in the streets of Amsterdam, as most restrictions have lifted.(Reuters: Eva Plevier)

How many people fell through the gap?

Plagued by a huge staffing challenge due to COVID, it took until the end of June for the AEC to officially finalise the election results.

The number of postal vote applications — in Australia and overseas — almost doubled in 2022 compared to the last federal election.

The AEC received over 2.7 million requests this year compared to 1.5 million in 2019.

A total of 61,561 postal vote applications were lodged by Australians overseas — approximately 10,000 more than the last election.

Of those, 21,805 ballot papers were completed and made it into the final count.

Despite the changes to the overseas voting services, the return rate for overseas postal votes sits at approximately 40 per cent — a slight 2 per cent increase from the last election. 

The AEC said the real return rate was likely to be higher as postal votes returned directly to Australia from overseas would not have been included in the overseas count.

Overseas voters who received a postal vote package had a number of options for how to lodge it:

  • deliver in person to the nearest embassy or consulate
  • post to the nearest embassy or consulate
  • mail directly back to the AEC in Australia through an overseas postal service

Whichever method they used, for their vote to be counted it had to be in the hands of AEC officials in Australia no later than 13 days after election day.

The AEC received another 17,558 votes from overseas polling booths in the 19 countries where face-to-face voting was made available.

On paper, that leaves a shortfall of at least 22,000 votes.

But the real number of missed opportunities remains unknown.

An AEC spokesperson said there were a number of reasons overseas postal votes may not have made it into the final count, including:

  • Votes not being received at embassies by the deadline
  • Votes not being lodged at all
  • People voting at an early voting centre before leaving Australia
  • People applying for a postal vote but then voting in person at one of the 19 overseas polling booths
A person holds a pen and a stack of postal vote papers. A person holds a pen and a stack of postal vote papers.
Australians will not be fined for not voting if ballot papers arrive after election day.(Supplied: Australian Electoral Commission via Twitter)

Calls for better support for overseas voters

In lieu of the missing in-person voting locations, the AEC said it made improvements to the postal vote service to meet the demands of the election timetable.

Postal vote packs were directly delivered to overseas voters through point-to-point couriers.

Voters were encouraged to return these to embassies and consulates, who would then send them to the AEC via diplomatic mail. 

“Point-to-point couriers and diplomatic return mail are both new solutions — firsts for this election that represent significant additional expense and effort for overseas voters in light of the pandemic,” the AEC spokesperson said. 

Both Dr Bergamin and Ms Cain said overseas voters can be better supported. 

“Knowing that international post seems to be [affected], we know you must apply for your postal vote very early because it can get delayed,” Dr Bergamin said. 

Ms Cain, on the other hand, would like to see an infrastructure upgrade to the voting system. 

“I think they could look at options for either online voting or be able to download a form and vote … with a double authentication system,” she said.

Phone voting was also made available to COVID-impacted voters in Australia, and Ms Cain questioned why the option had not been offered to those overseas.

Both were keen to see stronger support from the embassies or an extended time frame from the AEC following international post delays.

“Just because we live abroad, doesn’t mean we feel any less Australian,” Dr Bergamin said. 

“In some senses, we feel more Australian when we’re abroad, and we care what’s going on and we care how our country is seen on the global stage. 

“I think it’s really important for us to add our voice and our perspective to the democratic process.” 

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