(Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media)

It’s impossible to see the Morrison government’s rushed attempt at introducing a voter identification law as anything but a solution, and a moderately crafted one at that, to a problem that simply doesn’t exist.

Given the government’s general disinclination to make laws of any kind, the lack of any preparatory debate gives plenty of reasons to be suspicious of this one.

The proposed law is simple and carefully designed to tick all the “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about” boxes routinely used to justify national security legislation. It requires voters, when fronting up to a federal election on polling day or submitting a pre-poll vote, to present identification confirming their name.

Photo ID is not required, and the list of documents which can be used as identification is long and liberal: passport, driver’s licence, proof-of-age card, birth certificate, citizenship certificate, government ID card or Electoral Commission enrolment notification. A credit or debit card, bank statement, council rates, or water, gas, electricity or phone bill are also acceptable.

If you can’t produce any of these documents, you can still vote. Either another voter who does have ID can formally vouch for your identity or, failing all else, your vote gets put in a sealed envelope with a declaration of your identity, which gets checked later against the electoral roll and can still be counted.

Why do we need this? The government’s explanatory memorandum says it will “improve public confidence about the integrity of ballot-issuing processes” and “reduce the risk of electoral fraud (in the form of voter impersonation)”. It will also bring us into line with Canada and Sweden — yay. And it was recommended by Parliament’s joint standing committee on electoral matters (JSCEM), which inquired into the electoral system after each election, in 2013, 2016 and 2019.

JSCEM has indeed been recommending voter ID ever since the Coalition took control of it, although it only seriously looked into it in 2013. So there has been no actual inquiry into the need for voter ID in the past eight years; the government has produced no data or research to explain why it’s suddenly become an urgent requirement so close to the next election.

As for the evidence in relation to the incidence of voter impersonation in Australia, well, there is none. There is simply nothing out there to suggest that any Australian federal election has ever been, or is at risk of being, tainted by people turning up at the polling booth and pretending to be someone else. That is despite our system — because it allows you to vote at any booth — being theoretically susceptible to the risk.

As Antony Green points out, after the 2019 election there were about 2,000 multiple mark-offs out of 15 million votes cast; that’s the indicator of possible voter impersonation. Mostly they were caused by clerical error. Twenty cases were referred to the federal police, and nobody was prosecuted.

At a practical level, voter fraud is an infinitely lower order of risk to Australian democracy than, say, a concerted Facebook campaign by a major party falsely claiming that its opponents have a death tax policy. Yet the government has expressed no interest in Zali Steggall’s push to tighten the law on intentionally deceptive political advertising.

If we don’t need it, why does the government want it? “Voter suppression” is the call from the left on that. The government, it’s alleged, is copying straight from the Republican Party’s US playbook, manipulating the law to disenfranchise voters who are less likely to support conservative candidates, such as the poor and marginalised. Specifically, in America, Black people. Here, likewise. After all, which section of the Australian population is most likely to have difficulty producing ID on polling day? Make it harder to vote, and they won’t.

The analogy is imperfect, because of compulsory voting. The actual negative impact of voter ID requirements is likely to be vanishingly small, given that the proposed law does make it very easy to comply. However, that’s not an argument in favour of the law.

In the absence of any stated or apparent rationale for bringing in voter ID (beyond the meaningless assertion about public confidence), it’s fair to look for a more cynical explanation. Some have suggested that this is the first step by the Coalition down the path of undermining public confidence in compulsory voting with a view to eventually pushing for a change to voluntary voting. It’s true that that would suit right-wing parties better, generally.

I don’t know; I find it hard to attribute actual conscious thought to anything the Morrison government does, let alone forward planning with a horizon longer than the next election. I think it’s just classic Morrisonian politics: a ploy designed to simultaneously distract the media and public with a straw man issue which can easily be discarded if the Senate crossbench jacks up against it, and to wedge Labor on a win-win basis.

In any event, this is bad law, not because it’s inherently evil on its own terms but because it impinges on personal freedoms with no justification whatsoever. It should be rejected by the Senate, and I hope it is.