Many Australians will be denied their vote this year – and that’s not just under-eighteens, foreigners, prisoners and pets – and a number of those will only find out when they front up to a booth on election day to flex their democratic muscle.
The insidious and much-derided changes to the Electoral Act (or in Orwellian double-speak the incredulously named “Electoral Integrity Act“) will do much to disenfranchise and disempower by increasing the burden and decreasing the time for people to enrol (among other undemocratic aspects, and despite a $12 million advertising campaign that a GetUp-commissioned poll found 82% of Australians were still unaware of), but there is also another worrying aspect to the processes of voter enrolment that predates these changes and lurks waiting for unscrupulous politicians to exploit.
People may be removed from the electoral roll for many reasons, and the AEC has a perfectly legitimate if not unenviable role of ensuring the roll reflects reality as closely as practicable. One such reason is if official electoral mail finds its way back, marked “Return to Sender”. In fact it is in this way that the AEC can constantly monitor and update their records to reflect the transient habits of an increasingly mobile populus.
But it is not just mail from the AEC that can lead to unenrolment via this path. If MPs and Senators have their mail returned to sender, they can inform the AEC, who can then begin to remove those people from the electoral roll.
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Perhaps this is not so alarming in itself, but there is nothing to regulate or monitor the activities of the politicians in this respect, and it is not unimaginable to envision a party selectively mailing those groups or areas unlikely to vote for them, and then selectively reporting the “returned to senders” to suit their psephological fancies.
Add to that equation the advantage of incumbency, and now the early roll closure, and this process could be timed to remove vast swathes of unfavourable demographics without the prospects of them correctly reenrolling – if indeed they find out they have been removed in the first place (the AEC sends them a letter to investigate, and then to inform them of removal, but to the address the original mail unanswered).
If you think this scenario is cynical beyond the realm of all likelihood, consider this – the Howard Government’s changes to the electoral laws will disenfranchise these groups above all others – the young, the itinerant, the Indigenous, and (until the recent High Court decision) the incarcerated. All these groups are statistically unlikely to vote conservatively. It is not a great leap to extend this demographically-selective disenfranchisement to a zealous parliamentary mailer, and that should be enough to concern all but the enemies of democracy.