Over the 11 years of the previous government more and more Australians have been losing their most basic democratic right — their vote at a federal election. According to the Australian Electoral Commission 1.2 million eligible Australians (8%) are currently not on the electoral roll.

The current rate of enrolment is 91.5%. At the time of the November 2007 election it was 92.3%, while on 30 June 2007 it was 91.6%. On 30 June 2006 it was only 90.2%, while at the 2004 election it was 91.5%. There is a pattern here. The rate of enrolment goes up at election time as people rush to get on the electoral roll, then goes down between elections as people drop off the roll, mainly because they change address and don’t inform the AEC. The electoral roll is a dynamic entity, with people coming on and going off the roll all the time.

As Bernard Keane argued in Crikey, Senator Ronaldson’s recent allegations are a diversionary tactic to draw public attention away from damaging revelations about the way the Liberals’ regressive 2006 changes to Australia’s electoral law further disenfranchised thousands of Australians at the 2007 elections and directly affected its outcome.

One area that was targeted to make it more difficult to get a vote by the Howard government was provisional voting. A provisional vote is cast when a voter attends a polling place, but finds their name is not on the electoral roll for that electorate. The voter’s ballot is placed in an envelope with their details and signature on the outside. Until the last election the vote would be counted when the voter proved their address by providing a proof of address such as a utility bill. Despite the fact the Liberals won the 96, 98, 2001, and 2004 elections with the less restrictive provisions, at the 2007 elections they changed the rules.

Under the Howard Government’s changes, if such a voter did not have photo ID with them on polling day, they had to present photo idea to an AEC District Returning Office by the following Friday. Nearly 28,000 people failed to do so. This was because once the election result was known, people saw no reason to bother voting when this would not change the result. However, the exclusion of these votes cost Labor three seats that were decided by wafer thin margins. In a closer election this rort would have affected who was in Government. Using the bogus rubric of “ensuring integrity of the electoral roll”, the Liberals correctly guessed that provisional voters might be renters or that people who shifted houses or apartments were likely to be slightly more left of centre than other voters.

After the 2004 election, the then-Minister, Senator Eric Abetz, led a campaign to make it more difficult to enrol and to cast a provisional vote, based on the false allegation that voting fraud was undermining the fairness of Australian elections. In fact typically at the 2001 election only five people out of 13 million voters were pursued by the Federal Police for multiple voting.

Claims that there is an epidemic of fraudsters impersonating others were disproved recently before the Parliamentary Electoral Matters Committee by the Electoral Commissioner, Ed Killesteyn. Some 20,633 cases of “apparent multiple voting” were detected by the Commission after the 2007 election, but it turns out that 87% of these were in fact clerical errors. There were only 1,167 genuine cases of multiple voting (out of 13 million votes cast) and nearly all of these were elderly residents of nursing homes, who mistakenly went out and voted on election day, forgetting that they had already cast a postal vote.

The Rudd Labor government has pledged to reverse the undemocratic changes made by the previous government to Australia’s electoral laws. Three simple initiatives could move towards restoring the universality of Australians enrolled:

  1. All 18 year olds should be automatically enrolled rather than letting over 25% miss out because they fail to send a signed snail mail form back to the AEC.
  2. The 2007 Liberal rort forces our increasingly mobile population to “prove” they have shifted by signing a formal letter to the AEC, again only legal if received by the AEC via post. Voters should be able to electronically update their address via a scanned signature which could be compared to their existing signature at the AEC office.
  3. The new onerous ID requirements only introduced in 2007 designed to eliminate voters should be dropped and the system under which the Liberals won the 1996, 1998 and 2001 elections should be resumed.

The truth is that Australia has one of the fairest electoral systems in the world, with almost no electoral fraud. Labor intends to keep it that way. Particularly in a compulsory voting system we should be focused on getting as many people as possible onto the electoral roll.

Michael Danby has been a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters since he was elected 1998.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey