Not long after the major parties reached agreement on the need to re-upholster the system that has delivered an influx of micro-party members to the Senate, a new front is quietly opening on the electoral reform battleground.

Among the motions passed by the Liberal Party’s federal council on Friday was one calling for the introduction of voter identification laws, a notion foreshadowed last October by federal director Brian Loughnane and supported in the party’s submission to the parliamentary inquiry into last year’s election.

This comes three weeks before voter identification laws passed by the Newman government in Queensland face their first test at a byelection in the inner-northern Brisbane seat of Stafford.

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Whereas Senate reform entered the spotlight after the election laid bare the manifest deficiency of the status quo, voter identification is on the table because of an initiative of the Coalition, and in accordance with its electoral self-interest.

This has been strongly echoed over the past decade in the United States, where strict voter identification laws have been among a range of measures pursued by Republican-governed states as they test what the courts will let them get away with in making it harder for Democrat-supporting minority groups to vote.

There, as here, opponents argue that acquiring the appropriate identification is disproportionately burdensome to those on the margins of society: the homeless, poor, elderly or non-English speakers. Their case is compelling to the extent that the number of legitimate voters who are effectively disenfranchised is likely to be considerably greater than the number who deliberately engage in multiple voting by impersonating others — which, for all the bluster of certain advocates of voter identification, is repeatedly shown to be negligible.

Casting fraudulent votes on a scale required to have any real chance of affecting the result, even at the level of an individual electorate, would involve great expenditure of effort with considerable risk of detection (at least of the fact of the fraud, if not the identity of the culprits) and little chance of a return on the investment. Proponents of voter identification, at least when they’re being honest, are accordingly required to emphasise what might happen in theory, rather than what actually does in practice.

Nonetheless, the case for voter identification cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Evidence from opinion polling internationally suggests that a public growing ever more familiar with airport security, internet passwords and banking verification systems is finding it increasingly anomalous that their claimed identity should be taken at face value when discharging their solemn duty of choosing the nation’s government.

Where elections are concerned, the level of public confidence in the integrity of the system is no small matter, whatever the validity of the notions that underlie it.

Furthermore, the particular form of the regime being introduced in Queensland indicates that voter identification measures need not be the naked grab for power they so plainly are in the environment of fevered partisanship that prevails in the United States. Whereas the more adventurous of the American states have sought to deny the vote to those without specified types of photo identification, the Queensland model comes with a very substantial safety net.

Voters who find themselves unable to provide identification will be able to lodge a signed declaration vote that can later be admitted to the count if election officials deem it to be bona fide, which they will presumably do by checking the signature.

The measure nonetheless promises to make life more complicated on polling day and to impose a further burden on an election administration framework that, as last year’s federal election showed, is struggling to cope with what’s already on its plate.

ABC election analyst Antony Green argues that the extent of the logistical issues will not be clear until it emerges what proportion of voters are required to cast a declaration vote, while electoral law expert Graeme Orr of the University of Queensland foreshadows problems resulting from the rules being interpreted differently at different polling booths.

Nonetheless, if the Stafford byelection establishes that the Queensland regime can be dispatched with a passable level of efficiency, the federal government is likely to have public opinion on its side when it proceeds with a voter identification initiative of its own.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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