Late on Friday afternoon, the Australian Electoral Commission published the total numbers on the electoral roll for the upcoming election.

The rolls had closed, for new enrolments and re-enrolments, on the evening of Wednesday 17 October – nine days previous – and for address changes on Tuesday 23 October.

Three Saturday papers looked at the data, all concentrating on the youth component. George Megalogenis in the Weekend Australian was upbeat, noting that “the number of 18-year-olds eligible to vote jumped by 10.3 per cent when compared with the previous election” Sarah Smiles in The Age was also positive, describing the “nearly 100,000 more Australians in the 18-29 age bracket on the electoral roll than at the last election.”

But Paul Bibby at the Sydney Morning Herald was less happy, claiming that “the proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds who are eligible to vote has not increased since 2004, remaining at 80 per cent, compared to 95 per cent for the rest of the adult population.”

So who was right? This is a tricky area, requiring assumptions and estimates, and we don’t have all the data available.

For a start, we ignore the million or so Australians living overseas. This is a huge number, but a story within itself.

The good news is that the national electoral roll, as a proportion of the number of Australians eligible to vote, is about the same as it was as of the close-of-rolls in 2004. In fact, our best estimate has it .1 percent higher.


That number is around 93 percent of the age-eligible citizenry. This is “good” because earlier in the year this looked to be a heroic task. But not going backwards is qualified praise, and that still leaves 7 percent of people off the roll.

Megalogenis’s numbers on 18-year-olds are correct, but in proportional terms the increase is less stark. In 2004, 18-year-olds comprised 1.43 percent of the electoral roll, now they account for 1.51 percent.

But the 18-24 subset has marginally shrunk: in 2004 it accounted for 11.27 percent of the roll, and this year 11.26 percent. At the same time, it appears that the size of this age cohort has actually slightly increased in the population (see the March 2007 release of Australian Demographic Statistics from the ABS), and so rates of enrolment of this group may actually be going backwards.

Smiles’ number is also only part of the story. The proportion the roll accounted for by 18-29-year-olds is actually a little smaller in 2007 than in 2004: 19.13 compared to 19.28 percent.

Bibby’s 80% should read “in the low 80s” but his 95% is about right, as is his general thrust: young people are significantly under-represented on the electoral roll.

And one final point. Last year’s changes to the electoral law, to close the rolls when the writs are issued, instead of seven days later, were justified by the government on the grounds that the last minute flurry of enrolments placed an intolerable burden on the AEC. This flurry – numbering 156,000 in 2004 – has traditionally come about because the AEC finally had a cut-off they could advertise: “if you don’t enrol by such and such a date, you miss out”.

In ending this practice, the government claimed the AEC could get the roll up to date in advance. And the evidence suggests that the AEC did, through “RockEnrol” and general advertising, gather significant numbers before the election was called.

But in the end what happened in 2007? By postponing the issue of the writs, the government left the rolls open after all – for three working days, rather than the old five – after calling the election.

During this time 77,000 new enrolments were processed. Why the government did this we don’t know, and we don’t know how much the AEC suffered under the burden, but we do know that without those 77,000, total roll numbers this year would look very unimpressive.