The federal government has released the second of its two green papers on electoral reform. This one deals with pretty much everything not covered in the first, which focused on disclosure, funding and expenditure issues. Like its predecessor, the paper serves as a useful overview of Australia’s electoral arrangements and their potential for reform, the latter being dealt with in a suitably comprehensive and non-committal fashion. Of interest:

• Consideration is given to all the usual suggestions for reform to the voting systems, such as optional preferential voting in its various manifestations and a threshold of support for representation in the Senate. Also covered are things we can safely rule out happening, such as proportional representation in the lower house, single-member constituencies in the upper and a return to first-past-the-post.

• It is suggested redistribution processes might be reformed so they are held more frequently and to a set timetable.

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• Headline-grabber number one: resigning MPs might suffer financial penalty for causing a by-election (don’t hold your breath).

• Headline-grabber number two: serious discussion is given to granting the vote to sixteen-year-olds.

• Some reforms of the relatively recent past are raised for re-consideration. Example one: the removal of the requirement that those filling casual Senate vacancies contest their seats at the subsequent half-Senate election even if their term isn’t expiring, as was the case before 1977. It is further suggested that a Tasmanian-style recount procedure replace the current situation where the choice is effectively made by the party of the vacating member.

• Example two: as the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters had done in its report on the 2007 election, it is suggested we might return to allowing voters to use the same number more than once on their ballots in order to reduce the number of informal votes, and to reinstate the prohibition on advocating that voters do this on purpose. This was knocked on the head in 1998 following the infamous Albert Langer episode.

• Automatic enrolment processes, whereby personal details provided to other government agencies are used to place people on the electoral roll, are suggested as a remedy to the problem where the Australian Electoral Commission does well at removing wrongly enrolled voters from the roll but less well at getting unenrolled voters on there in the first place. It is noted that the NSW government is examining such a mechanism for its “Smart Roll” project, utilising high school students’ details from the NSW Board of Studies.

• The Howard government’s more stringent requirements for proof of identity look very likely to be weakened, although the paper has good things to say about allowing enrolment for those who provide a driver’s licence without also requiring them to present the signature of a witness.

• The Howard government’s indefensible move to close the electoral roll almost immediately after the issue of the writs is set to be at the very least reversed. There is discussion of pushing the closure even later into the campaign, which technological developments have made easier to achieve, and even of allowing registration on election day, as occurs in Canada and some places in the United States.

There’s further stuff I haven’t read yet on the campaign, polling, scrutiny of ballots, dispute resolution and compliance and enforcement; I might add further to this post when I do. Somewhere in all that is discussion of electronic and internet voting, which Robert Merkel discusses at Larvatus Prodeo.

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Peter Fray
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