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Australia

May 29, 2012

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."

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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.

Charles Richardson — Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson

Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson has contributed to Crikey since 2002, and was a ministerial adviser in the Kennett government and a former editorial manager at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.

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24 thoughts on “Electoral Commission on a roll as hunt on for the unenrolled

  1. Charles Richardson

    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.)

  2. drsmithy

    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 ?

  3. Liz45

    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!

  4. Dogs breakfast

    “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. 🙂

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