It’s unlikely to make a huge amount of difference, but it is nonetheless pleasing to note that the government has suffered a hiccup in its bid to purge the electoral roll of undesirables. When he announced the election timeline on Sunday morning, the Prime Minister declared as expected that the writs would be issued on Wednesday, allowing time for the state Governors to organise writs for the Senate election.
This meant the roll would close to new enrolments at 8pm that evening, with the deadline for amendments to existing enrolments set for three working days later; which as far as anyone knew at the time meant 8pm on Monday. However, nobody had reckoned on Friday’s annual show day public holiday on Flinders Island in the Bass Strait. Since the 900 inhabitants of Flinders Island are as entitled as anyone to three working days in which to update their enrolment, the deadline has instead been set for Tuesday evening, contrary to the Prime Minister’s initial announcement. The Australian Electoral Commission has apologised for providing him with incorrect information.
Until now, voters have been given a full week after the issue of the writs to either enrol or update. During the first week of the 2004 campaign, around 78,000 new enrolments and 345,000 updates were processed. Simon Jackman and Peter Brent of the ANU’s Democratic Audit estimate that the latter figure included at least 40,000 who got back on the roll after being taken off (for example, because they moved house.) Opponents of the government were unquestionably over-represented in all groups, new enrolees being overwhelmingly young and updaters containing a large proportion of renters on low incomes. Empowered with its Senate majority, the government sought to make life as difficult as possible for these voters by introducing the tight new deadlines now taking effect, ostensibly as a measure against enrolment fraud.
The chart below gives some indication of the likely effect of the new measures on total enrolment, with the pre-election uptick set to be a lot less pronounced this time (figures obtained from the AEC).
The 2004 line shows a sharp downturn in the month before the election announcement as the AEC conducted its pre-election cleanout of the roll. As Antony Green explained in an article for Crikey, this procedure has since been replaced by “a more regular process of cleansing the roll”; to make it more accurate when state elections are held, hence the lack of a comparable downturn going into the current election. Even so, the number of enrolled voters declined fractionally in the month to the end of September, despite the AEC’s extensive advertising campaign.