Whenever the federal election is held, up to 1.4 million of us will not be entitled to cast a ballot because we are not on the roll.
The main cause of this democratic deficit is technical; when people move address the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) is required by law to delete their names from the roll. But even though the commission knows their new address it cannot automatically re-enrol them. Instead they are sent an enrolment form and asked to fill it out and return it to the AEC — only 30% do so in the specified time.
Given Australia has operated compulsory enrolment since 1911 and no major political player opposes the concept, it is imperative that all steps be taken to lift the rate of enrolment. The Howard government took a backward step in 2006 when it abolished the seven-day grace period between the issuing of the writ and the closure of the roll. At the previous election in the seven days before the roll closed there were more than 500,000 roll transactions of which more than 60,000 were new enrollees — most likely from people who had turned 18 since 2001.
There is currently before the Senate a Bill to reinstate the seven-day grace period, but it is unlikely that parliament will be re-called before the election — and anyway the coalition does not support it. This means that if the Prime Minister calls a snap election many people who have turned 18 or have moved address since 2007 might miss out on getting on the electoral roll to vote.
The constitution and the electoral act provide short-term escape clauses to this problem.
Let’s say the PM goes to Yarralumla on Sunday, July 11 and advises the Governor-General to dissolve the House of Representatives — at the same time she could advise Bill Shorten’s mother-in-law to issue the writs for the House and the Territory senators (and make the necessary arrangements for the state governors to issue writs for the state senators) on Friday, July 16. The rolls then would not close until 8pm that day and the forgetful young and others who had changed address but not updated their enrolment would have five days to put their affairs in order.
The electoral act proscribes a minimum of 33 days from the issue of the writ until polling day, which could be August 20 at the earliest, giving us an average five-week campaign.
There is strong precedent for this approach. It is what occurred for decades up until 1983 when Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser called a snap poll and roll closure. Typically the Prime Minister would declare the election date in parliament or elsewhere if parliament was not sitting and the rolls would close some time afterwards. Between 1940 and 1980 the average gap between the calling of the election and the close of the roll was 19 days.
This solution should be regarded as only temporary and the whole partisan debate about roll closure should be superseded by the Commonwealth following the example set by NSW and move into the 21st century by adopting automatic enrolment of 18-year-olds and automatic reinstatement to the roll of those who change address.
Brian Costar is Professor of Political Science at Swinburne University of Technology and Coordinator of the Democratic Audit of Australia