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Electoral Commission on a roll as hunt on for the unenrolled

The Australian Electoral Commission today launches “Count Me In”: as it describes it, “a nationwide hunt for voters missing from the electoral roll.” Commissioner Ed Killesteyn expresses concern that “the estimated number of missing voters is serious and comparable to a city the size of Perth or most of Brisbane disappearing off the map”.

But wait before getting out your dart gun; it’s the commission itself that will be doing the hunting, and that by relatively non-invasive means. There will be “a postcard to every Australian household”, outlining “the three easy steps to enrol or update enrolment details”, plus “A national online advertising campaign, stencil art on the pavements of capital cities, and community radio advertising”.

All well and good. But the AEC would like to do more than just send people postcards; what it really wants is the power to update the electoral roll automatically, using data from motor vehicle registration and the like. That’s what already happens for state elections in New South Wales and Victoria, and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill currently before the Senate, would extend the process to federal enrolment.

As well as a genuine search for the unenrolled, Killesteyn’s media campaign is also a subtle reminder about the bill, which has been opposed by the Coalition. (For the background, see multiple stories by Peter Brent, particularly this one from the 2010 election and this one from February when the legislation was introduced.)

There are two main arguments made against automatic enrolment, one serious and one bogus. The bogus argument is that it will increase the risk of electoral fraud: names will get on the rolls without being properly vetted, so ineligible people will be able to vote, or maybe vote multiple times.

Australia has a system of electoral administration that is the envy of the world, but there is nonetheless an active and well-funded group of conspiracy theorists who maintain, with essentially no evidence, that fraud is rampant. Beneath the surface lies an obvious political motive, namely to disenfranchise as many as possible of the young, the poor, the itinerant and the non-English speaking, since all of those groups have a tendency to vote Labor.

This, of course, was the purpose of the Howard government’s move to close the rolls on the day an election was called, and it also motivates a variety of other proposed restrictions on enrolment or voting.

(Requiring photo ID from voters is a particular favourite.) In the United States, these moves have gone a great deal further and now threaten to seriously distort election results.

But there is also a genuine argument against automatic enrolment — that it reinforces and makes more effective our system of compulsory voting, which is an infringement of basic civil liberties. This is the argument put at some length by our own Bernard Keane (see here, here and here). A few months ago he described it as “a further step along the road of state surveillance, with the commission … given carte blanche to use information from any source for the purposes of dragging unwilling citizens into the compulsory voting framework”.

As it happens, I agree with Keane about the obnoxiousness of compulsory voting (or, for pedants, compulsory showing-up-to-a-polling-place-and-getting-your-name-crossed-off — why anyone thinks this distinction matters is completely beyond me). And there’s certainly an argument that, although enrolment is already compulsory, the relative ease with which one can avoid enrolment means that voting in effect is also optional for anyone who really cares about it.

We don’t know how many of the 1.5 million or so that have either dropped off the roll or never got onto it have made a conscious decision to that effect. Keane seems to think it’s a lot; I suspect the number is fairly small. But even if it’s only, say, one in a hundred, that’s 15,000 people who are currently practising civil disobedience and who, with automatic enrolment, could get caught and fined.

The problem with this argument is that not passing the legislation won’t stop the AEC looking at other data sources. They do that anyway, in order to send people enrolment forms (which are often ignored). Although they can’t currently use that data to automatically enrol people, there’s nothing to stop them using it as evidence to prosecute people for not enrolling.

We’ve had compulsory enrolment now for 100 years, but as Brent points out, there have been no prosecutions for non-enrolment since the 1980s. In other words if the AEC wanted to create a police state, it already has the means to do so; it (wisely) chooses not to. Automatic enrolment won’t change that state of affairs, but it will restore the franchise to a large number of people who currently lose it through ignorance or carelessness.

It’s a pity that, among its other sins, compulsory voting has clouded the debate on what should be a sensible reform. In my view, the way to go is automatic enrolment coupled with optional voting: make it as easy as possible for people to vote if they want to, but don’t force them.

That’s the debate that we should be having. If compulsory voting is bad, let’s argue against it directly rather than rely on people being able to evade it by subterfuge.

24
  • 1
    Posted Tuesday, 29 May 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    I agree. If voting is compulsory it should be implemented as conveniently as possible. Keane’s counter argument leads to the erosion of trust in the legal system: we have a law on the books but wont try seriously to enforce it.

  • 2
    garydj
    Posted Tuesday, 29 May 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Charles, for another excellent article.

  • 3
    Bo Gainsbourg
    Posted Tuesday, 29 May 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    OK I kind of liked this article, but the bit about compulsory rolling up and registering on voting day as an infringement of civil liberties is a bit….meh. I can think of a pile of stuff higher on that list than that tiny inconvenience. Just has a Libertarian flavour about it that possibly passes muster in a 1st year philosophy/politics class but really…its a bit of a yawn as an issue. Do you really feel your civil rights are grossly violated by that absolutely minor requirement? Its not as if anyone wanting to lodge a ‘they can all get stuffed’ great moral protest is somehow stopped from doing it, fact is, when the vast majority of people are gently invited to participate in at least one aspect of the democratic process, they are fine with it. But I’m sure Eric Abetz would lend you a sympathetic ear if its really that bad.

  • 4
    Liz45
    Posted Tuesday, 29 May 2012 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    I heard someone today suggest, that the AEC do an ‘opt out’ formula? All people to be automatically put on the AEC list at 18, and then it’s up to people to have their name removed? Then they’d have to give a reason. AEC just go by the info Govts already have re family payments etc.

  • 5
    Andrew
    Posted Tuesday, 29 May 2012 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    It’s helpful that you have distinguished two issues that so often are mixed together - automatic enrolment and compulsory voting. The AEC is actually doing people a favour with automatic enrolment - they can be enrolled without bothering to have to fill out a form when they turn 18, move house etc. I’m sure the AEC have better uses for taxpayer money than sending out enrolment forms all day, or sending out those roll update people who knock on your door a few months before elections. This initiative would ensure that anyone who wants to vote can vote regardless of when the election is called, stop the avalanche of enrolments when an election is called and stop the ridiculous Labour/Coalition to and fro about the close of rolls date.

  • 6
    Jillian Blackall
    Posted Tuesday, 29 May 2012 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s a concern that there are so many people out there who either don’t care or think that they can’t make a difference. Introducing automatic enrolment does not resolve that underlying problem.

  • 7
    drsmithy
    Posted Tuesday, 29 May 2012 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    As it happens, I agree with Keane about the obnoxiousness of compulsory voting (or, for pedants, compulsory showing-up-to-a-polling-place-and-getting-your-name-crossed-off — why anyone thinks this distinction matters is completely beyond me).

    Because one thing forces you to influence an outcome you may not agree with and the other does not.

    That’s the debate that we should be having. If compulsory voting is bad, let’s argue against it directly rather than rely on people being able to evade it by subterfuge.

    Compulsory voting isn’t bad. It’s one of, if not the, best features of our democratic system.

    I find it strange that someone would, on the one hand, complain about imaginary disenfranchisement of voters, yet on the other argue for a system that must - by the same logic - create even more.

  • 8
    drsmithy
    Posted Tuesday, 29 May 2012 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    OK I kind of liked this article, but the bit about compulsory rolling up and registering on voting day as an infringement of civil liberties is a bit….meh. I can think of a pile of stuff higher on that list than that tiny inconvenience.

    Indeed. One can barely conceive the sort of oppression jury duty, K-12 schooling and immunisation represent to Messrs Richardson and Keane.

    Imagine if they had to live in one of those totalitarian states like Switzerland where you have to register with the local authorities whenever you move house !

  • 9
    Meski
    Posted Wednesday, 30 May 2012 at 1:09 am | Permalink

    @DrSmithy: Choosing not to choose is a choice in itself. :)

  • 10
    drsmithy
    Posted Wednesday, 30 May 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    Choosing not to choose is a choice in itself.

    No aspect of our compulsory voting system prevents you from choosing not to cast a valid vote.

    I have yet to see anyone complaining about compulsory voting being an infringement of their rights have the intellectual integrity to attack the vastly greater imposts of jury duty and 12 years of compulsory schooling - to name but two other responsibilities of living in modern society - so enthusiastically.

  • 11
    Steven Warren
    Posted Wednesday, 30 May 2012 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Agreed DRSmithy.

    The infringement of rights upon people that don’t want to vote is fairly low as they can just hand in an invalid ballot.

    The infringement on people who want to vote but can’t because they moved house and forgot to update their voting information or something else like that is fairly substantial.

    Two elections ago I got a letter telling me my vote hadn’t counted for that exact reason (I’d moved two weeks before the cutoff date and forgot to update my details) and the seat I was voting in was won by less than 300 votes. 150 failed votes like that could have flipped the seat.

    Under an automatic system that would never have happened.

  • 12
    Charles Richardson
    Posted Wednesday, 30 May 2012 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the feedback, everyone. I wasn’t really trying to argue the merits of compulsory voting (I’ve done so before, eg here: http://www.crikey.com.au/2005/09/28/compulsory-voting-the-controversy-continues/ ), but since people ask, here goes.

    I accept that the actual duty imposed on people is slight (altho those of us who are interested in politics may underestimate the extent to which those who are not would feel it as an imposition), but I think the burden of proof is always with those who want to impose a duty. I’ve heard lots of arguments for why people think compulsory voting is a good thing, but there’s a conspicuous lack of evidence for them. Have the countries that have abandoned compulsion seen some deterioration in their political systems? Not that I can see. It’s not as if Australian political culture is in robust good shape; if compulsory voting works such wonders, I hate to think what we’d be like without it.

    It seems to me that it works the other way; if something is imposed as a duty, it’s not also valued as a right, so people come to disparage politics and political participation more than they otherwise would. Compulsory voting sends the message that government doesn’t trust its citizens to participate without forcing them, and such messages tend to be self-fulfilling. Now I could be wrong about this, but as I say I think the onus is on those arguing for compulsion to demonstrate that.

    The reason I don’t accept the analogy with jury duty is that pretty much everyone accepts that you can’t run a jury system without compulsion: the whole point is to get an unbiased sample of the community. But we know you can run an electoral system without compulsory voting, and indeed all the most successful democracies - New Zealand, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and the Scandinavian countries - do just that.

    (Compulsory education, I think it’s fair to say, raises a completely different set of issues. I’m against it, but that’s a whole other argument.)

  • 13
    Meski
    Posted Wednesday, 30 May 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    @Charles: If you read Crikey, chances are that you are interested in politics.

  • 14
    Bob the builder
    Posted Wednesday, 30 May 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    or, for pedants, compulsory showing-up-to-a-polling-place-and-getting-your-name-crossed-off — why anyone thinks this distinction matters is completely beyond me”

    The distinction is important: if you feel you shouldn’t have to or don’t want to vote, you don’t have to. All you have to do is have your name ticked off.

    Although it may not be the case now, in many countries voter intimidation is widespread and deters many people from voting. Compulsory attendance at the polling booth guards against that. It also influences convenient times for voting, so that, unlike in the US, voting isn’t held on working days, meaning people in insecure jobs often miss out.

    The small infringement of civil liberties should be balanced against the greater benefit.

  • 15
    drsmithy
    Posted Wednesday, 30 May 2012 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    I accept that the actual duty imposed on people is slight (altho those of us who are interested in politics may underestimate the extent to which those who are not would feel it as an imposition), but I think the burden of proof is always with those who want to impose a duty.

    The most important aspect of compulsory voting is that it adds legitimacy to the Government by requiring everyone to participate.

    A claim of a “mandate” after winning, say, a bare majority is already on shaky ground. A claim of one if only 30% of the population actually voted is simply absurd.

    I’ve heard lots of arguments for why people think compulsory voting is a good thing, but there’s a conspicuous lack of evidence for them.

    I’ve heard lots of arguments against compulsory voting. They invariably either boil down to inane bleating about “civil liberties” - as if wandering down to a polling booth every few years was akin to a cavity search - or people with fringe causes who want to take advantage of voter laziness and cynicism.

    Have the countries that have abandoned compulsion seen some deterioration in their political systems? Not that I can see.

    I would argue that there are several countries with voluntary voting whose political systems are complete basket cases. Exhibit A: the USA.

    It’s not as if Australian political culture is in robust good shape; if compulsory voting works such wonders, I hate to think what we’d be like without it.

    No-one is arguing compulsory voting is a silver bullet, or that it will magically stop politics being political.

    It seems to me that it works the other way; if something is imposed as a duty, it’s not also valued as a right, so people come to disparage politics and political participation more than they otherwise would.

    I think your premise is wrong, however, at the very least turnabout is fair play: If voluntary voting works such wonders, how do you explain the USA, whose political environment makes even ours look tempered, respectful and effective (largely because the selfish & divisive Right has only started to become seriously active in the last 5-10 years here, while they pioneered their methods in America decades ago) ?

    Compulsory voting sends the message that government doesn’t trust its citizens to participate without forcing them, and such messages tend to be self-fulfilling.

    Utter rubbish. It sends the message that living in a civilised society means accepting certain responsibilities, one of which is selecting (and therefore taking responsibility for) who should be running it.

    Now I could be wrong about this, but as I say I think the onus is on those arguing for compulsion to demonstrate that.

    It provides a much greater measure of confidence that the elected Government meets the satisfaction of the majority of citizens, rather than just the true believers.

    The reason I don’t accept the analogy with jury duty is that pretty much everyone accepts that you can’t run a jury system without compulsion: the whole point is to get an unbiased sample of the community. But we know you can run an electoral system without compulsory voting, and indeed all the most successful democracies - New Zealand, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and the Scandinavian countries - do just that.

    Why is compulsion necessary to “get an unbiased sample of the community” ? Why is having an “unbiased sample of the community” not important for deciding who runs it ?

    Do I need to point out the various legal systems worldwide that function “just fine” without juries ?

  • 16
    Mike Smith
    Posted Thursday, 31 May 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    @DrSmithy:

    or people with fringe causes who want to take advantage of voter laziness and cynicism.

    Not *just* fringe causes. It’d be terribly easy for a government, or even an opposition to inculcate an attitude of ‘why bother to vote’ in the electorate. Having discouraged the majority, you then just need to get your faithful to turn out. Hmm, sounding like any government/s around the world you could mention?

    OTOH, if you do this with compulsory voting, the outcome is much harder to predict.

  • 17
    Liz45
    Posted Friday, 1 June 2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    I get sick of people whining about voting. I’m sure the people in Egypt, Syria etc would love to have the problems we do.

    I’ve heard people returning from ‘awful places’ overseas coming home and not coping with the whining that we do. If only the people in Somalia or somewhere only had this awful problem to colour their thinking when they look down at their starving babies or burying their four kids etc!

    If people don’t vote they lose the right to whinge in my view. I often get angry at the ignorance people show of just some basis aspects of government etc.

    I’ll never complain about voting. It’s a pleasure to live in a country where we have so much and have little to whine about (unless you’re one of the 100,000 who live on the streets, or one with awful disabilities or illnesses).

    Get over yourselves and embrace our freedoms ( even if they’re not perfect, they can be fixed?).

  • 18
    Mike Smith
    Posted Friday, 1 June 2012 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    @Liz: True, but it comes across as “eat your veg, there’s children starving in Africa”

    I’d sooner live here than most places, even though I do whine about the prospect of a Tony Abbott led government.

  • 19
    Liz45
    Posted Friday, 1 June 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    I don’t really care how it comes across - it’s a truth!

    Years ago, when I was handing out for the ALP, organising volunteers etc, I’d be gob smacked by people asking who were we voting for? Mr Wran or Mr Whitlam, sort of question. The first time I naively asked if they’d been out of the country? (I was very young at the time - do something????)I listen to quizzes these days, and am stunned when people don’t even know the most basic question such as, ‘who’s the Minister for Education’ ? Stunned I am!

    The prospect of Abbott as PM is something too awful to contemplate - particularly if you’re poor, young and unemployed, a woman, a sole parent(usually women) with kids at state schools! The better off to rich will do just fine, as he will govern for them. Oh yes, the ageist, sexist and racist will be more than happy also! I don’t relish having George Pell dictating his misogynist policies on the women of this country either, and that’s what we’ll get! Things are really improving these days, with good policies etc like support for the White Ribbon Day organisation - I hate the thought of going backwards! I hope people remember, ‘you were warned’? Trouble is those who are among the voiceless will be hit the hardest! Very sad!

    I said the same or similar prior to O’Farrell and his govt. It took a matter of weeks for him to wage war with the incomes of public servants! Now it’s allowing gun happy red necks in over 70 national parks, something he said would NOT happen prior to the election. Who’s lying now?

    Workers voted for O’Farrell and his mob. Now they’re living the reality!

    Funny how I haven’t heard of strident headlines on the front page of the Telegraph etc? Fancy that? No big banners saying ‘O’Farrell-liar’ or angry shock jocks saying that he should be put in a bag and thrown out to sea? (As AJ said about Bob Brown and Julia Gillard).Where’s the outrage from Allan Jones and his ilk? Lost their voices?

    Every two minutes, a woman dies somewhere in the world due to complications with pregnancy and birth. That’s about 3 women since I started to type. I’m thankful that my lovely grand daughter gave birth yesterday morning with qualified people, her Mum and Aunty and a lovely clean bed for her and her tiny daughter! Apart from stitches, soreness and exhaustion, she’s delightfully healthy and gorgeous and my g/grand daughter is as cute as a button - I’m in love - again!!

    As I said earlier, I like the idea of people having to remove their name from the Electoral Roll, rather than having to enrol at 16 or 18. They can enrol in advance now, which is great. Anything to assist in the democratic process is fine with me. God forbid we end up like the US? Where the major parties have too much to do with polling day etc Remember 2004. We make sure that even the most remote areas are included - this is great, and I know the envy of millions around the world.

    A good documentary to watch is ‘How Bush Won Florida’? Probably on http://www.freedocumentaries.org. It clearly showed the role played by the Republican Governor(GW’s brother) the head of the Party and the Court! Very sobering indeed! Almost made me send an email to the AEC congratulating them on their hard work on our behalf!

  • 20
    Jillian Blackall
    Posted Sunday, 3 June 2012 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    I turned 18 on December 29, 1994, and I enrolled in advance. So I was readily able to vote in the NSW state election in March 1995.

  • 21
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Monday, 4 June 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s a concern that there are so many people out there who either don’t care or think that they can’t make a difference. “

    Jillian, I wasn’t on the electoral roll for about 18 years. That was by choice and quite frankly I saw it as my act of civil disobedience, which puts me in neither of your categories. I now wish I hadn’t got back on, as getting off is difficult unless you are moving.

    What’s the problem with compulsory voting?

    They invariably either boil down to inane bleating about “civil liberties” - or people with fringe causes who want to take advantage of voter laziness and cynicism.”

    It’s not unusual, as DrSmithy has done, to assume that if they don’t agree with me, then they have no good reason for it.

    Here are some good reasons for not wishing to be on the electoral roll that are neither, DrSmithy;

    - The fact that the electoral roll, to my surprise, was not a secret document but seemed to be readily available to individuals and companies. Privacy! I don’t want my name shopped around, sorry.

    - The fact that the electoral roll is the base for the jury roll, i.e. it is shopped around for purposes other than voting. A scarring experience in my 20’s regarding jury duty was the impetus for me to get off the roll. No, it wasn’t that bad, but it opened my eyes to the fact that juries are just a group of idiots brought together for no purpose that they have an interest in, to make significant judgements about others lives.

    - The fact that my vote is summarily given exactly the same weight as someone who has no interest in politics, has no idea, no understanding of government and policy and no idea.

    Why do I want to be counted in amongst such an appalling group as my fellwo citizens.

    Civil disobedience seemed the least I could do. :-)

  • 22
    Bob the builder
    Posted Tuesday, 5 June 2012 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    Civil disobedience seemed the least I could do. “

    And no doubt it was also the most you did.

    What navel-gazing pretentiousness - oh, the iniquities of having to be counted as a part of the filthy, inferior sc-m you count as your fellow humans. Oh, the pain!

  • 23
    drsmithy
    Posted Tuesday, 5 June 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    It’s not unusual, as DrSmithy has done, to assume that if they don’t agree with me, then they have no good reason for it.

    It’s not an assumption.

  • 24
    Jillian Blackall
    Posted Tuesday, 5 June 2012 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Dog’s Breakfast, “What’s the problem with compulsory voting?” Well, you chose not to vote at one stage. So you seem more against compulsory voting than I am. I generally believe in choice rather than compulsion.

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