Last Thursday in The Age two heavy hitters of Australian psephology, Colin Hughes and Brian Costar, attacked the government’s proposals for change to the electoral laws, saying they “favoured conspiracy theories over democratic common sense.” Today Tony Smith, chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, presents the government’s defence.

There were two main issues. On one, voting rights for prisoners, Smith doesn’t have much to say. He says “we will just have to agree to disagree as a matter of principle,” but doesn’t advance any reason for thinking that the government’s position is based on principle, rather than populist prejudice and a crude calculation of electoral advantage.

The other issue is early closing of the rolls before an election, which Hughes and Costar said “could rob something like 300,000 citizens of their voting rights.” That number, however, is an exaggeration; as Smith points out, some people at least will change their behaviour in response to the changed law and keep their enrolment up to date. “To suggest that several hundred thousand people would simply ignore the new requirement is condescending and wrong.”

But Smith carries sophistry too far when he argues that the smaller number who will miss out aren’t really “disenfranchised.” Sorry: if a legislative change results in people who were eligible voters no longer being able to vote, that’s disenfranchisement. And when something as important as the franchise is at stake, the argument based on the electoral commission’s convenience is pretty flimsy.

Perhaps wisely, Smith does not even attempt to argue that these changes will not benefit the Coalition. It’s undeniable that young people, itinerants and criminals are disproportionately Labor voters, and that’s why these changes are the government’s priority. By contrast, the proposed change to Senate above-the-line voting, attacked last week by Malcolm Mackerras in the Fin Review, would have more unpredictable effects; the fact that Smith doesn’t mention it today adds to the suspicion that the government will quietly let it die.