election candidate

If there’s any truth to the old adage about America’s sneezing causing our own country to catch a cold, Australians of a sensitive persuasion have had a lot to be nervous about lately.

Three weeks into his presidency, it’s already abundantly clear that the Donald Trump of the election campaign was seriously literal, literally serious, and not about to let his behaviour be tempered in any way by the responsibilities of the office.

Some of the loudest alarm bells have been set off by Trump’s delusional insistence that voter fraud robbed him of a popular vote majority, and the related promise that his administration would “strengthen up voting procedures”.

[The Turnbull-Trump phone call transcript]

This has been against a backdrop of long-running efforts by state Republicans to fortify their party’s electoral position through selective voter identification requirements, heavy-handed purges of supposedly ineligible voters from the rolls, and sweeping disenfranchisement of convicted felons — with the burden in each case falling disproportionately on racial minorities that overwhelmingly favour the Democrats.

To this point at least, conservative governments in Australia — either due to greater scruples, or the less clear-cut racial dimensions of party politics in this country — have been a good deal more restrained.

There was some echo of American experience in the later Howard years, when the High Court twice struck down voter suppression initiatives that were passed after the Coalition secured a Senate majority in mid-2005.

One was a move to close the electoral roll on the same day that an election was called, thereby removing the one-week period in which prospective voters could enrol or update their address details.

The other was a tighter restriction on voting by prisoners, who were to lose the vote if serving sentences of more than one year, rather than the existing three years.

In knocking the latter on the head, the High Court ensured Australia would never travel down the path that has led to the state of Florida to deny the vote to over 10% of its adult population, thanks to the disenfranchisement of convicted felons and the uniquely American enthusiasm for mass incarceration.

[How the US has disenfranchised 6 million potential voters]

Another Republican favourite, voter identification at the polling booth, was given a try by Campbell Newman’s Liberal National Party government in Queensland, before being repealed by its Labor successor (and has more recently been recommended by a parliamentary committee in New South Wales).

Yet even Newman’s doctrinaire administration implemented the measure in such a benign fashion (those without identification could still cast a vote, but it would not be admitted until it was established that no other attempt had been made to cast a vote in that person’s name) that the benefit in terms of public confidence outweighed the negligible harm done to the franchise.

Of course, it may be that this was intended as the thin end of a wedge, and that Newman had worse in mind for his second term.

Should future conservative governments feel inspired to follow such a path, the groundwork for a campaign of weakly supported electoral fraud paranoia has been laid over the years by talk radio host Alan Jones, constitutional monarchist David Flint and, most persistently, the H.S. Chapman Society.

While the latter has lost some of its vigour in recent times, it was once a prolific publisher of books with titles including The Frauding of Votes and The Stolen Election: Australia 1987, According to Frank Hardy (don’t ask).

These critiques generally related to the electoral reforms introduced by the Hawke government in 1983, which included abolition of electoral “subdivisions” as a basis for organising the electoral roll, and introduction of the aforementioned seven-day grace period between the calling of an election and the closure of the roll.

Voting fraud alarmists argue that these changes removed guarantees against voter impersonation, but they have only ever advanced the flimsiest of anecdotal evidence to support the notion that it occurs on any significant scale in practice – leaving aside the related but distinct issues involved with corrupted party preselections.

At the margins, it may well be thought that a number of Melbourne-based university students were not acting in good faith when they enrolled in the rural Victorian seat of Indi before the 2013 federal election, apparently to boost independent Cathy McGowan in her narrowly successful bid to unseat Liberal member Sophie Mirabella, notwithstanding that they may have had close and ongoing family ties to the electorate.

This resulted in 28 enrolments being referred to the Australian Federal Police, four of which were in turn referred to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, with criminal proceedings initiated in two cases.

However, the discontinuation of these prosecutions in 2015 emphasised the ambiguities that inevitably arise in an electoral regime based on place of residence.

More substantively, charges were brought last year against Salim Mehajer, the colourful former deputy mayor of Auburn in western Sydney, over allegations he submitted 76 forged enrolment forms ahead of a council election in September 2012.

In this case, Mehajer’s effective winning margin of 529 votes, together with the consequences that have since befallen him, serve only to illustrate the unbalanced effort-to-benefit ratio in any endeavour to skew a large scale election.

For whatever reason, voting fraud is not high on the agenda of the Turnbull government, judging by the terms of reference for the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters’ inquiry into last year’s federal election, which deal with campaign finance and authorisation of electoral advertising in the digital age.

But given the way the wind seems to be blowing internationally, it’s not difficult to imagine that a future conservative government could look upon recent innovations in the United States with a more admiring eye.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey