There are three forms of compulsion involved in Australian elections. The first is compulsory electoral enrolment. The second is compulsory voting, or compulsory attendance at polling places depending on how you interpret the electoral act. The third is compulsory preferential voting, though some states use optional or limited preferential voting.

While compulsory preferential voting is unknown everywhere else in the world, (as in general is preferential voting), and compulsory voting is extremely rare, compulsory enrolment is more common than people realise.

The United Kingdom amongst others uses compulsory electoral enrolment, though as the UK uses voluntary voting, compulsory enrolment is not viewed as a huge intrusion by the state. (Except when the poll tax was introduced, but that is another matter entirely.)

There has been debate about compulsory voting in Australia, but no one has questioned the requirement for compulsory enrolment. It is a given that compulsory enrolment is a good compulsion.

However, compulsory enrolment only works if enforced, and at the moment, legislative inaction combined with Byzantine administrative procedures is undermining compulsory enrolment.

There was comment during in 2006 on the peculiar decline in electoral enrolment across Australia. This was incorrectly blamed on the government’s new enrolment procedures. As the procedures have only just been introduced, they cannot be blamed for last year’s fall in electoral enrolments.

The real problem has been the change in the way continuous roll maintenance is undertaken by the Australian Electoral Commission under the joint roll agreement with the states.

Traditionally the AEC did its major roll cleans on a three yearly cycle timed to Commonwealth elections, often based on door knocking and direct contact. While fine for the AEC, this usually meant the rolls were less accurate for state elections. To overcome this, a more regular process of cleansing the roll was instituted after the 2004 election.

Regular reports from state agencies that handle car and drivers licence registrations, property and rental transactions and utilities connections have been fed into a regular update process for the electoral roll.

I understand that so concerned were electoral authorities with the decline in enrolment in 2006 that the update cycle has been lengthened, and the AEC is also reviewing its procedures about how it writes to people when they move into an address.

The process of removing someone from the roll is known as objection. If from data provided by other authorities, the AEC becomes aware a person may have moved, the AEC writes to that person at their ‘last known address’ asking for clarification as to whether they still live there. If no response is received, a letter is sent informing them they are about to be removed from the electoral roll. If no response is received, they are removed from the roll and a letter sent informing them of this.

The key point is that all this material is sent to the ‘last known address’. The data from other authorities may indicate where the person has moved to, but all the AEC does with the new address is send an enrolment form and ask them to fill it in and send it back. What they don’t do is tell them they are removing them from the roll at their old address. There is no marrying between the two transactions.

So the current system in place spits out three letters to the person at an address where all other data indicates the person is not living at, but does not put the same effort into chasing up the person at the new address. Unless the voter has arranged mail forwarding for many months after they moved, the fact the AEC is removing the voter from their old address is not made plain to the voter at their new address.

This is the reason why there was so much confusion at the March 07 NSW election with people being denied absent votes. This process had removed them from their old address, but the voter had not regularised their enrolment at the address where the AEC now believed they lived.

All this comes about because even with the new enrolment procedures, the system is based on a system of proof of identity, not proof of residence. For a whole variety of reasons, people do odd things with their car registrations and drivers licences. It may be to get access to a parking permit or to pay a lower car insurance premium. It may be to allow a husband and wife to own two houses but claim separate residence to avoid land tax. Life and dealing with bureaucracy is complex, and citizens have many ways of coping with it.

Now people should be re-enrolling after they move, and the AEC is helpful enough to send people a new enrolment form. But shouldn’t the AEC be making more effort to marry the two ends of the transaction together and at least tell the person that if they don’t re-enrol they will be removed at their old address? And if the law was changed, the whole process could be automated so the person would be re-enrolled, barring them lodging an objection to being enrolled at their new address. In the UK, most re-enrolments are done automatically by local authorities.

The new enrolment procedures to be introduced at the next election have adopted two cut-off dates for the electoral roll. New enrolees must fix their enrolment up on the day the writ is issued. Others already on the roll will have three days to regularise their enrolment to the correct address.

The problem is, after three years of the new continuous enrolment procedures, how many people will have been knocked off the electoral roll without their knowledge and therefore find themselves without the right to vote?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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