For one Australian voter, September 7 2013 was a very busy day. While most of us were savouring our election day sausages in the early spring sunshine, someone was practising William Hale Thompson’s famous admonition to “vote early and vote often”.

Reviewing its records from the big day, the Australian Electoral Commission discovered one person had voted 15 times, scattering ballots across their electorate like confetti at a wedding. This devotee of democracy wasn’t alone, either; the commission has confirmed it is investigating almost 2000 cases of multiple voting in the 2013 poll.

In ordinary times, the fact that 0.013% of voters got a bit over-enthusiastic at the ballot box would not excite much concern. But unfortunately for the AEC, these are not ordinary times.

The loss of more than 1300 ballots in the West Australian Senate count has already put our national electoral system in the spotlight, and a growing chorus of Coalition voices is calling for a major overhaul. Even before this latest revelation, government frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull was pushing for new processes to clamp down on what he called “improper voting”. Within days of the new government taking the reins, both Special Minister of State Michael Ronaldson and Liberal federal director Brian Loughnane had singled out stricter voter identification rules as a priority reform for future elections.

If the government goes down this path, it will surely have the support of Parliament’s newest powerbroker, Clive Palmer, who has complained that the current laws allow Australians to “vote 10, 20, 30 times if you like”. Holding court with reporters recently, Palmer mocked the supposed insecurity of Australia’s voting system, saying: “To board a flight you need ID, but not to exercise your democratic rights.”

These proponents of voter ID make it sound as though this is a quick and easy fix for a gaping security flaw: a no-brainer reform that will bring voting into line with banking or flying to Bali. But as with so many aspects of public administration, the reality is much more complicated than that.

Australia isn’t alone in allowing voters to cast their ballots without showing ID — the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Denmark are among a range of countries with similarly loose rules. In recent decades, however, the international trend has been towards tighter requirements, particularly in the United States, where voter ID has become a topic of heated political debate.

In 2002, George W. Bush signed into law an act requiring new voters to verify their identities when casting a ballot for the first time. That act opened the gates for a flood of new state-based voting laws, and some 34 states have now passed laws imposing ID requirements on all voters.

These US state laws differ in whether they require photo or non-photo ID, and how strictly they are enforced by officials at booths. But there is a growing body of evidence showing that, overall, the tighter ID rules are acting to discourage and disenfranchise some voters. These effects are being seen most strongly among young, old, ethnic and poor voters, furthering the marginalisation of these groups.

“… how will requiring voters to show a utility notice or Medicare card prevent one person impersonating another?”

Dorothy Cooper’s now-famous story highlights why this is the case. In 2011, the 96-year-old Tennessee woman attempted to apply for a state-issued photo ID so that she could vote in the following year’s presidential election. Being too old to drive and lacking any other form of photo ID, Cooper tried to use a collection of other documents to verify her identity. But she hit a wall of bureaucracy because the name on her birth certificate didn’t match the married name listed on her lease and electricity bills, and she was unable to find a copy of her marriage certificate to confirm she was the same person. Local county office staff informed the frail pensioner that they could not verify her identity using those documents, and refused to issue her with a new photo ID. It took a state MP intervening in Cooper’s case (as well as nationwide media publicity) before she was finally issued with the necessary identification to vote.

Dorothy Cooper’s predicament is not uncommon in America. A 2006 survey from the Brennan Centre for Justice at New York University estimated 11% of eligible American voters lack access to photo identification, with this figure rising to 18% for those aged over 65 and 25% for African-American voters. Since the passage of tighter voter ID laws, these citizens must struggle through the bureaucratic mire experienced by Cooper, and often pay expensive fees for the privilege. If they don’t or they can’t, then they are simply turned away on polling day — denied their democratic right to vote.

Of course, under Australia’s compulsory-voting laws, election officials won’t have the option simply to turn away voters who are unable to provide the right ID. That’s probably why the Queensland government took a slightly different tack when it announced Australia’s first voter identification laws late last year.

Introducing the new rules, Queensland Attorney-General Jarrod Blijie declared: “Maintaining the integrity of our electoral system is vital, so proof of identity will be required on polling days to prevent voter impersonation.” (This, despite the government’s own electoral reform discussion paper noting that “there is no specific evidence of electoral fraud in this area”.)

At future state elections, Queenslanders will have to verify their identity before voting, but they’ll be able to use a range of documents to do so. These include photographic forms of ID such as a drivers licence or passport, as well as non-photographic forms including utility bills and leases, Medicare cards and state concession cards. This flexibility greatly reduces the risk that those without photo ID will be disenfranchised. But it also raises questions about how much non-photo forms of identification can actually do to prevent voter fraud.

When voicing his concerns about the security of the current federal system, Turnbull told the ABC:

“There are a large number of people who vote fraudulently in the sense that they go to the polling place and say they are someone else. Now I think that most of them are doing so honestly – they are doing so on behalf of a friend who is away or who is sick … [but] I think we underestimate the extent to which there is improper voting.”

Taking Turnbull’s proposition at face value, how will requiring voters to show a utility notice or Medicare card prevent one person impersonating another? If someone has the forethought to send another voter in their place, how hard would it be to also hand over an old electricity bill?

*Read the rest of this article at Inside Story