Since 1918, it has been compulsory to enrol to vote in Australia . Compulsory turnout at the polls came later — but the two go hand-in-hand, making good the principle that every voice matters.

In practice, we know that people new to the system — first-time voters such as the young and recent citizens — are less likely to be enrolled. Worse, many thousands are “cleansed” from the rolls each year because the government has data showing they have moved addresses. Letters are sent chasing them, but those letters may never reach their recipients. Forms are received, but people don’t act on them (especially given the identification requirements the Howard government required).

Perversely, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) cannot use the same data to automatically enroll you or update your address. So the rolls are cleansed, but not refilled. The law doesn’t even allow the AEC to provide for an online enrolment process. Paper forms must be signed, witnessed, identification cited and posted to local offices for processing.

The New South Wales parliament, with bipartisan support, enacted an “automatic enrolment” system late last year.  It’s not 100% automatic, mind you. It will permit the NSW electoral commission to write, advising  people they are going to be enrolled. This can be by email or SMS. People will have at least a week to correct the data if needs be. Data relying on school enrolments and drivers licensing is known to be highly reliable.

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The federal government wants to follow suit.

On Thursday, Andrew Robb stood in parliament and threw a big spanner. He denounced automatic enrolment as “radical”, “untried” and a threat to electoral “integrity”. No evidence was given for the latter claim.

To be generous to the federal Opposition, let us assume they are not in this for partisan effect. After all it is not just the young and migrants who are less likely to be enrolled: roll cleansing affects all classes of people in a mobile community.

Their position is classically conservative in three ways. One is the claim that enrolment must remain ultimately an individual’s responsibility. If this claim is sincere, it may as well be a mask for voluntary enrolment, and hence voting.

The second conservative element is the “don’t try anything new” line. Yet that didn’t stop the Howard government introducing early roll closure and extra identification requirements. And since the NSW commission and the AEC are happy with automatic enrolment, it is hardly “radical”.

The third conservative angle is to fear for the “integrity” of the rolls. But a significantly incomplete roll inherently lacks integrity. Not just because comprehensiveness is as important as accuracy, but because if one wanted to rort the roll the best gift the law could give would be a pool of tens of thousands of citizens, in every street in the nation, to personate.

If automatic federal enrolment is not enacted it won’t just be a victory for less comprehensive rolls.  And it won’t just mean a return to the inefficiencies of the decades predating  joint federal-state roll arrangements.

The federal election in the NSW “battleground” may end up an almighty mess. If you are automatically enrolled in New South Wales, why would you imagine you had to go through the paper trail of enrolling federally? A disjointed system risks mass disenfranchisement — and it will bring the federal roll into disrepute.

The NSW system is not being rushed in. The laws are yet to be started, pending careful operational development. They may even be delayed until after the federal election, to at least avoid chaos at this year’s federal poll.

But what about the next electoral cycle? It would be ironic if the much-maligned NSW political system moved into the 21st century while the federal system was left languishing in early 20th.