PNG: Where voter turnout is too high

By Maholopa Laveil
Lecturer in Economics, University of Papua New Guinea

Voter turnout is high in Papua New Guinea. In 2017, approximately 90% of the estimated voting-age population cast a vote, despite PNG not having compulsory voting.

This could be a sign that people in PNG are enthusiastic about participating in elections, or it could point to electoral problems. In my previous blog post, I wrote about roll inflation and the potential that came with it for electoral fraud.

The conventional way to calculate voter turnout is as a ratio of votes to people on the roll, but given how inflated the common roll has been, a more appropriate measure in PNG is a ratio of votes to voting-age population (people old enough to be legally able to vote). Using this measure to compare countries in Melanesia, voter turnout in PNG in 2017 was the highest, with recent voter turnout in Solomon Islands at 80%, Fiji at 73%, and Vanuatu at 80%.

Voter turnout (as a share of voting-age population) in PNG, 1982 to 2017

The overall figure for 2017 of roughly 90% of estimated voters voting may not seem too worrying at first glance. However, voter turnout in 2017 varied across PNG’s four regions, as the chart below shows. Voter turnout was 60% in the Islands region, 77% in the Momase region, and 69% in the Southern region. Yet in the Highlands, votes exceeded the estimated voting-age population by 20%.

Historically, voter turnouts have been lower than the national trend in the Islands, Momase and Southern regions. Since 1982, voter turnout in the Momase and Southern regions has been increasing, with Momase’s voter turnout growing from 66% in 1982 to 77% in 2017, and Southern region’s increasing slightly from 67% in 1982 to 69% in 2017. Voter turnout in the Islands, however, fell from 81% in 1982 to 60 per cent in 2017. It is unclear why voter turnout in the Islands is now lower than in other regions.

Voter turnout (as a share of voting-age population) by region, 2017

The Highlands region is different, with votes exceeding the voting population in the previous five elections. Examining the 2017 election, it is possible to pinpoint the problematic Highlands provinces. As the table below shows, votes exceeded population by the most in Jiwaka, Eastern Highlands, and Enga. Provinces where votes exceeded population the most were also those with the greatest roll inflation, with Jiwaka the biggest culprit in both the 2012 and 2017 elections.

Since each voter votes twice, one for their own (“open”) electorate and one for the provincial seat, the sum of votes for all electorate seats in a province should be equal to the votes cast for the provincial seat. This is true for all provinces except the Southern Highlands, where the open seat total votes exceeded provincial votes by 37%. Voter turnout was 96% when the provincial vote is used but 132 per cent when open votes are used.

Highlands provinces where votes exceed the voting-age population, 2017

Highlands provinces where votes exceed the voting-age population, 2017

A voter turnout well in excess of the voting-age population in any part of the country is cause for real concern. It indicates that in places voters are taking advantage of an inflated roll to vote more than once, and the 2017 election is instructive. In 2017, implausibly high voter turnout reflected other electoral issues as well. Indelible ink – a tool supposedly designed to indicate people have already voted – was abandoned early in many Highlands voting booths. Further, police personnel were deployed late to some places on polling day. Candidate capture of the appointment of polling officials also led to unrealistic voter turnout.

In 2017, these problems allowed instances of ballot stuffing through underage voting, open voting, block voting (representatives voting on behalf of entire communities), proxy voting, and family voting. One report found that 11% of all respondents surveyed said they had voted multiple times.

The 2017 elections were allocated K400 million, of which K121 million was spent on security. Given the problems of 2017, a better 2022 election will require more – or at least more efficient – election expenditure. Effective coordination between police and the Electoral Commission is needed around the polling schedule. More polling officials and police will need to be posted to wards with large rolls. Preventing capture and intimidation by powerful candidates will require a more transparent process of appointing polling officials and in the counting process.

Many countries worry about their voter turnout being low. In parts of PNG, the opposite is the problem. Realistic voter turnouts will be a crucial test of the fairness of the 2022 PNG elections.

This article was republished from Devpolicy Blog.

Banner image: People gather for the 2017 PNG elections. Source: Terrence Wood


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