The Australian Electoral Commission today launches “Count Me In”: as it describes it, “a nationwide hunt for voters missing from the electoral roll.” Commissioner Ed Killesteyn expresses concern that “the estimated number of missing voters is serious and comparable to a city the size of Perth or most of Brisbane disappearing off the map”.

But wait before getting out your dart gun; it’s the commission itself that will be doing the hunting, and that by relatively non-invasive means. There will be “a postcard to every Australian household”, outlining “the three easy steps to enrol or update enrolment details”, plus “A national online advertising campaign, stencil art on the pavements of capital cities, and community radio advertising”.

All well and good. But the AEC would like to do more than just send people postcards; what it really wants is the power to update the electoral roll automatically, using data from motor vehicle registration and the like. That’s what already happens for state elections in New South Wales and Victoria, and the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Protecting Elector Participation) Bill currently before the Senate, would extend the process to federal enrolment.

As well as a genuine search for the unenrolled, Killesteyn’s media campaign is also a subtle reminder about the bill, which has been opposed by the Coalition. (For the background, see multiple stories by Peter Brent, particularly this one from the 2010 election and this one from February when the legislation was introduced.)

There are two main arguments made against automatic enrolment, one serious and one bogus. The bogus argument is that it will increase the risk of electoral fraud: names will get on the rolls without being properly vetted, so ineligible people will be able to vote, or maybe vote multiple times.

Australia has a system of electoral administration that is the envy of the world, but there is nonetheless an active and well-funded group of conspiracy theorists who maintain, with essentially no evidence, that fraud is rampant. Beneath the surface lies an obvious political motive, namely to disenfranchise as many as possible of the young, the poor, the itinerant and the non-English speaking, since all of those groups have a tendency to vote Labor.

This, of course, was the purpose of the Howard government’s move to close the rolls on the day an election was called, and it also motivates a variety of other proposed restrictions on enrolment or voting.

(Requiring photo ID from voters is a particular favourite.) In the United States, these moves have gone a great deal further and now threaten to seriously distort election results.

But there is also a genuine argument against automatic enrolment — that it reinforces and makes more effective our system of compulsory voting, which is an infringement of basic civil liberties. This is the argument put at some length by our own Bernard Keane (see here, here and here). A few months ago he described it as “a further step along the road of state surveillance, with the commission … given carte blanche to use information from any source for the purposes of dragging unwilling citizens into the compulsory voting framework”.

As it happens, I agree with Keane about the obnoxiousness of compulsory voting (or, for pedants, compulsory showing-up-to-a-polling-place-and-getting-your-name-crossed-off — why anyone thinks this distinction matters is completely beyond me). And there’s certainly an argument that, although enrolment is already compulsory, the relative ease with which one can avoid enrolment means that voting in effect is also optional for anyone who really cares about it.

We don’t know how many of the 1.5 million or so that have either dropped off the roll or never got onto it have made a conscious decision to that effect. Keane seems to think it’s a lot; I suspect the number is fairly small. But even if it’s only, say, one in a hundred, that’s 15,000 people who are currently practising civil disobedience and who, with automatic enrolment, could get caught and fined.

The problem with this argument is that not passing the legislation won’t stop the AEC looking at other data sources. They do that anyway, in order to send people enrolment forms (which are often ignored). Although they can’t currently use that data to automatically enrol people, there’s nothing to stop them using it as evidence to prosecute people for not enrolling.

We’ve had compulsory enrolment now for 100 years, but as Brent points out, there have been no prosecutions for non-enrolment since the 1980s. In other words if the AEC wanted to create a police state, it already has the means to do so; it (wisely) chooses not to. Automatic enrolment won’t change that state of affairs, but it will restore the franchise to a large number of people who currently lose it through ignorance or carelessness.

It’s a pity that, among its other sins, compulsory voting has clouded the debate on what should be a sensible reform. In my view, the way to go is automatic enrolment coupled with optional voting: make it as easy as possible for people to vote if they want to, but don’t force them.

That’s the debate that we should be having. If compulsory voting is bad, let’s argue against it directly rather than rely on people being able to evade it by subterfuge.