Elections offer fertile ground for paranoia, thanks to the high stakes involved and the reluctance of many partisans to accept the fact that the public at large won’t always see things their way.

Two popular avenues for conspiracy theorists that invariably get a run in letters-to-the-editor pages (after Labor victories, in particular) are the absence of voter identification requirements and the provision of pencils rather than pens for filling out ballot papers.

 

The latter concern is the more obviously eccentric of the two, but the weight of evidence to support contentions that either weak spot is being exploited to corrupt the electoral process is the same in each case.

Non-problems though they may be, it would seem that the federal government is gearing up to solve them, following yesterday’s long-awaited publication of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters’ final report of its inquiry into the 2013 federal election.

So far as voter identification is concerned, the committee’s conclusions come as no surprise, with Coalition members proposing that the regime employed at the recent Queensland state election be adopted federally, while Labor and the Greens have voiced their objections in a dissenting report.

Given the efforts of the Howard government after it secured a Senate majority at the 2004 election — which included greater limitations on voting rights for prisoners and a dramatic shortening of the time in which voters could update their enrolment after an election was called, both of which were struck down by the High Court — it’s easy to entertain the suspicion that the Coalition is attracted to voter identification as an electorally inspired means to place obstacles before marginalised members of society in seeking to exercise their vote.

Nonetheless, the Queensland model entails a commendably liberal approach that addresses the concerns that undoubtedly exist about the existing system, without warranting the talk of “voter suppression” that has legitimately been levelled against similar measures in the United States.

Rather than denying the vote to those unable to provide one of the prescribed forms of identification, it instead withholds their ballots from the count until it is established that the details they provide on a declaration form conform to those on the roll, and that no other attempt has been made to vote under that name.

The concept is nonetheless opposed by the Greens as well as Labor, which is moving to revoke the provision now it is back in power in Queensland.

In the dissenting report from Labor and the Greens, it is suggested that voter identification was to blame for the turnout rate at the recent Queensland election being the lowest since 1980. However, the shift was by no means radical — 89.9% of enrolled voters, compared with between 90.5% and 91.0% at the three previous elections — and the election’s highly unusual timing at the height of summer seems at least as likely a culprit.

A more realistic concern for Labor is that the proposal might prove to be the first move in a longer game.

The Queensland regime has already been shown to have worked smoothly in practice, with only a fraction of the voters at the state election availing themselves of the safety net of a declaration vote. There can be little doubt that it would be a similar story at a federal election, should the government get the required cross-bench support to pass the measure through the Senate.

Having dispensed with the argument that voter identification might prove a recipe for polling day chaos, it could then be argued that the declaration vote backstop did nothing to prevent impersonation of deceased voters who remained on the electoral roll. If such concerns were invoked to justify weakening the safety net or removing it altogether, the journey down the road to voter suppression would truly have begun.

The other bone of contention between the major parties relates to the direct enrolment system introduced by the previous government, which allows the Australian Electoral Commission to automatically enrol voters and update details based on data matching with other government agencies.

Presently this operates on an opt-out basis, with the AEC contacting those affected and proceeding with the change if they don’t receive an objection within 28 days. If the Coalition gets its way, it will instead fall to the prospective voter to give the AEC the green light to proceed.

Both the voter identification and direct enrolment issues fit neatly into the broader pattern of the Coalition favouring tighter arrangements and Labor preferring looser ones, since it is generally in the latter’s interests to have as many votes admitted to the count as possible.

As for pencils in polling booths, Antony Green explains they have been favoured as they are “cheaper, can be sharpened if they go blunt and are less likely to be stolen”.

The JSCEM report offers that the committee is “not of the view that pencils are provided for any reason other than to allow voters to mark ballot papers”, but it would presumably prefer that the matter be dispensed with for the sake of a quiet life. On this occasion, Labor and the Greens have been happy to let the recommendation go through to the keeper.

Peter Fray

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