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Australia

May 29, 2012

Electoral Commission on a roll as hunt on for the unenrolled

The Australian Electoral Commission today launches "Count Me In." As it describes it: "a nationwide hunt for voters missing from the electoral roll."

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.

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24 comments

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24 thoughts on “Electoral Commission on a roll as hunt on for the unenrolled

  1. Gavin Moodie

    I agree. If voting is compulsory it should be implemented as conveniently as possible. Keane’s counter argument leads to the erosion of trust in the legal system: we have a law on the books but wont try seriously to enforce it.

  2. garydj

    Thanks, Charles, for another excellent article.

  3. Bo Gainsbourg

    OK I kind of liked this article, but the bit about compulsory rolling up and registering on voting day as an infringement of civil liberties is a bit….meh. I can think of a pile of stuff higher on that list than that tiny inconvenience. Just has a Libertarian flavour about it that possibly passes muster in a 1st year philosophy/politics class but really…its a bit of a yawn as an issue. Do you really feel your civil rights are grossly violated by that absolutely minor requirement? Its not as if anyone wanting to lodge a ‘they can all get stuffed’ great moral protest is somehow stopped from doing it, fact is, when the vast majority of people are gently invited to participate in at least one aspect of the democratic process, they are fine with it. But I’m sure Eric Abetz would lend you a sympathetic ear if its really that bad.

  4. Liz45

    I heard someone today suggest, that the AEC do an ‘opt out’ formula? All people to be automatically put on the AEC list at 18, and then it’s up to people to have their name removed? Then they’d have to give a reason. AEC just go by the info Govts already have re family payments etc.

  5. Andrew

    It’s helpful that you have distinguished two issues that so often are mixed together – automatic enrolment and compulsory voting. The AEC is actually doing people a favour with automatic enrolment – they can be enrolled without bothering to have to fill out a form when they turn 18, move house etc. I’m sure the AEC have better uses for taxpayer money than sending out enrolment forms all day, or sending out those roll update people who knock on your door a few months before elections. This initiative would ensure that anyone who wants to vote can vote regardless of when the election is called, stop the avalanche of enrolments when an election is called and stop the ridiculous Labour/Coalition to and fro about the close of rolls date.

  6. Jillian Blackall

    I think it’s a concern that there are so many people out there who either don’t care or think that they can’t make a difference. Introducing automatic enrolment does not resolve that underlying problem.

  7. drsmithy

    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).

    Because one thing forces you to influence an outcome you may not agree with and the other does not.

    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.

    Compulsory voting isn’t bad. It’s one of, if not the, best features of our democratic system.

    I find it strange that someone would, on the one hand, complain about imaginary disenfranchisement of voters, yet on the other argue for a system that must – by the same logic – create even more.

  8. drsmithy

    OK I kind of liked this article, but the bit about compulsory rolling up and registering on voting day as an infringement of civil liberties is a bit….meh. I can think of a pile of stuff higher on that list than that tiny inconvenience.

    Indeed. One can barely conceive the sort of oppression jury duty, K-12 schooling and immunisation represent to Messrs Richardson and Keane.

    Imagine if they had to live in one of those totalitarian states like Switzerland where you have to register with the local authorities whenever you move house !

  9. Meski

    @DrSmithy: Choosing not to choose is a choice in itself. 🙂

  10. drsmithy

    Choosing not to choose is a choice in itself.

    No aspect of our compulsory voting system prevents you from choosing not to cast a valid vote.

    I have yet to see anyone complaining about compulsory voting being an infringement of their rights have the intellectual integrity to attack the vastly greater imposts of jury duty and 12 years of compulsory schooling – to name but two other responsibilities of living in modern society – so enthusiastically.