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(Image via @lachiemc64)

Computer says "No"! Boycotting the marriage equality vote will only serve to delay its inevitable acceptance. IA’s resident econometrics analyst Alan Austin crunches the stats.

THOSE CALLING to boycott the forthcoming postal survey on gay marriage have included former High Court judge Michael Kirby. While they clearly have a compelling moral argument, analysis of the available information suggests this will not serve the interests – either short term or long term – of gay and lesbian Australians wanting to tie the knot.

Some are hoping the poll will engage fewer than 25% of voters and hence be regarded as ultimately invalid. This will pressure the Parliament, so the argument goes, to resolve the issue with a free vote — which will change the policy immediately.

This outcome is impossible. Here is why.

There were 15,882,788 voters registered at the end of June. So we can assume an even 16 million will be eligible to vote in November. (To participate in the survey, run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, voters need to be enrolled by 24 August.)

We have a fair idea from the latest two opinion polls – YouGov and Essential – that 62% of the population now support marriage equality, 26% are opposed and 12% remain undecided. This was confirmed by Melbourne University’s latest HILDA survey, which found 59% of men and 67% of women support equal rights. The 2016 Election Study, from the Australian National University, found 70% supportive. 

Let’s go with 62 yes/26 no/12 abstain. That means, if everyone voted, around 9.92 million out of all 16 million voters would vote Yes, 4.16 million would vote No, and the undecided 1.92 million would save the postage stamp.

Frustratingly, we don’t know what the turnout will be for this voluntary survey. In compulsory federal ballots, the turnout is usually in the range 91% – 95%.

But there is limited experience in Australia of non-compulsory voting by post. The last at the federal level was the 1997 Constitutional Convention vote, where the turnout was just 46.9%.

Same sex marriage is a topic on which 88% of people clearly have an opinion — many of them passionate. The "don’t know" plus "don’t care" group – now just 12% – is much smaller than on most contentious issues. Even on the republic, after all these years, the undecideds are still around 22%.

Hence, it is highly likely the turnout in November will be 50%, or even as high as 60%. But we don’t know. It could be as low as 40%.

Let’s look at the possible outcomes.

If 50% of eligible "No" voters return their ballot papers, "No" votes would number 2.08 million. So already, 13% of the total eligible vote will have been received. If 50% of eligible "Yes" voters respond, "Yes" votes would number 4.96 million. We would now have received 44% of all eligible votes. (This disregards informal votes, which will probably be negligible.)

That would be an overwhelming victory for the "Yes" camp — 70% to 30%. At 44% participation, the result would certainly be valid. Wedding bells across the land before Christmas.

To mount a successful boycott – that is, to ensure fewer than 25% of voters participated – the "Yes" vote would need to drop below 1.92 million. This would happen only with a participation rate at a feeble 19.4%.

So those campaigning for a boycott must persuade more than 80% of all eligible voters who want marriage equality to refrain from voting.

That won’t happen. The Labor Party has announced its support for a "Yes" vote. So have more than 30 Coalition MPs, including PM Malcolm Turnbull. More and more voices will be added to the "Yes" campaign between now and November.

The risk with the boycott push is that it succeeds in reducing "Yes" voters down to a participation rate of, say, 25% (2.48 million votes), while the No voters boost theirs to 65% (2.70 million). That would be a win for the status quo — 52% to 48% with an overall participation rate of 32%.

Hence, the best approach for those wanting November nuptials is to encourage as many people to vote as possible — for and against.

Even in the extreme case of 70% participation by "No" voters, that’s 2.9 million votes against. It would take the participation of only 35% of "Yes" voters to yield 3.5 million votes for. That would constitute a pretty comfortable win – 55% to 45% – with overall participation by 40% of the electorate.

It is impossible to know which of the camps – for or against – will be more motivated to walk briskly to the postbox. The fact that opinion polls show such a wide disparity may suggest an inevitability about the result, which would lessen the urgency to vote. This should work both ways. On the other hand, passions are high. This should work both ways too.

The most likely outcome – based on the data currently available – is 40% to 50% participation from both sides. This gives a 70% – 30% victory for honeymoons this Summer. Including former Justice Michael Kirby’s.

You can follow Alan Austin on Twitter @AlanAustin001.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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