First they came for the late enrollers

Two opinion pieces in today’s papers give the thumbs down to major recommendations of the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. In The Age, Colin Hughes and Brian Costar concede that the report "contains much useful information about the electoral system and makes sensible recommendations about how to improve it", but argue that moves to eliminate the seven-day period between the issue of the writs and the closure of the electoral roll threaten "Australia’s well-earned reputation as a world leader in democratic practice":

The committee advanced two major justifications for abolishing the statutory period of grace. One was that by not keeping their enrolment up to date 284,110 souls were guilty of offences under the Electoral Act and should not be allowed any leeway. This excessive legalism runs counter to the sensible, long-established practice whereby the Australian Electoral Commission does not pursue prosecution for non-enrolment if the neglect is remedied.

The committee also claims that the current arrangements "present an opportunity for those who seek to manipulate the roll to do so at a time where little opportunity exists for the AEC to undertake the thorough checking required ensuring (sic) roll integrity". This argument fails on at least two counts. First, the AEC, in its submission to the inquiry, stated categorically that it applies its established procedures during the seven-day period after the writs are issued “with the same degree of rigour as it does in a non-election period”. Second, the committee itself admits that there is minimal evidence of actual roll fraud, but insists that it must take measures to prevent it occurring in the future.

This second assertion ignores the thorough review of the electoral roll conducted in 2002 by the Australian National Audit Office, which concluded "that, overall, the Australian electoral roll is one of high integrity, and can be relied on for electoral purposes". There are adequate safeguards in the current electoral laws and procedures to deal with any future attempts at fraud without stripping the vote from hundreds of thousands of citizens.

Before we all start stocking up on firearms and tins of baked beans, Hughes and Costar note that a potential constitutional loophole promises salvation for our cherished democratic freedoms, should state governments choose to make use of it:

This arises from the fact that the governor-general, on the advice of the prime minister, issues the writs for the House of Representatives and the four territory senators, but the state governors, acting on the advice of their premiers, issue the writs for Senate elections. The constitutional power clearly exists for one or more of the state premiers to advise their governors not to issue Senate writs for, say, seven days after the prime minister announces the election date, thereby keeping the rolls open in those states.

Writing in the Australian Financial Review (not available online), Malcolm Mackerras differs from Hughes and Costar in that his "overall reaction is hostile", because the recommendations are "relentless in their pursuit of the electoral interests of the Liberal Party". Restrictions of space compel him to limit his criticisms to the familiar matter of full preferential above-the-line voting for the Senate:

Such a change would massively drive up the informal vote. Why do we have this Faustian pact between the Liberal Party, the Democrats and the Greens? The Liberal Party wants to drive up the informal vote because that advances its electoral interests. The Democrats and the Greens are in the business of punishing Family First because, in their view, Steve Fielding won a seat in Victoria that they believe he should not have won. These politicians will vehemently deny my assessment …

Lack of space prevents me from a full explanation of why I call chapter nine a disgrace. I content myself with three points. First, the chapter (page 230) grotesquely mis-describes the system of "first past the post" in an attempt to justify the prejudices of many of our politicians. Second, the chapter (pages 208, 210, 214 and 226) commits a real howler in using the term single transferable vote in a way that is not only internally inconsistent but flies in the face of the international literature on electoral systems. Third, the chapter gives some objections to the current (reasonably sensible) system of group voting tickets and then (page 216) says: "The decision of the Family First party in some states to favour a preference distribution to other minor parties that advocated policies radically at variance with Family First’s declared core values, may be an example of this type of strategic behaviour, and its consequences."

No evidence is given. However, the main value of this sentence (not intended, of course) is that the politicians have given themselves away as to their target.

Mackerras seems unusually relaxed about Family First’s success in winning a seat with neglible support thanks to huge volumes of preferences from oblivious voters. I would be interested to know if this is because space prohibited him from advocating what seems to me the obvious solution, namely optional preferential voting. For much, much more on this topic, see the comments thread for this earlier post.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

11 comments on “First they came for the late enrollers”

  1. Dear William old bean,

    With respect, monkeying around with the franchise for party political gain is no laughing matter. Australian practice of staying away from this behaviour is one of those things that distinguishes us from, say, the USA, where it has long been par for the course.

    No doubt the first thing you did upon turning 18 was rush to the nearest AEC and enrol. Of course when you move house you change your electoral roll details immediately. But most people don’t do that.

    Costar and Hughes take things like the right to vote seriously Good on them.

  2. I entirely support Costar’s and Hughes’s position, and probably should have said so. I didn’t think that quite prohibited me making fun of the issue, but it occurred to me there would be others who would.

  3. Yes, as if changing your enrolment is the most important thing for you to think about when you move house.

    When you move house, you do all those things like change your phone, the gas, the electricity, send letters to the banks, get a re-direct on the mail, and maybe fix up your drivers licence.

    One thing you can’t do is change your electoral enrolment, as by law you have to wait till you have lived there for a month. That is why in many states whenever someone does move and change their utilities and drivers licence, the electoral authorities have data share agreements that generate letters reminding people to change their enrolment.

    What could be done is something like in New Zealand, where even though the rolls have closed, voters can fix up their enrolment any time up until polling day. Like here, enrolment is compulsory in NZ. If you have not fixed up your enrolment, you can still vote, by telling the electoral authorities of your address, you can still vote using a special (or declaration) vote. In NZ, they also give plenty of notice of the election, providing plenty of time to fix up your enrolment anyway.

    By the way, the Minister keeps referring to the ACT, NSW and Tasmania as jurisdictions where they close the rolls the day the writ is issued. Well, we already know the dates of the elections in the ACT and NSW. And Tasmania may close the rolls on the day the writ is issued. But the Electoral Act specifies there must be 5 days between the dissolution and the issue of the writ, the period when people fix up their enrolment.

  4. Interesting that Mackerras targets the Democrats as “punishing Family First,”

    It was actually the Democrats who played a key role in Family First’s success. Without their preferences in Victoria, Stephen Fielding would not have been elected.

    The Australian Democrats had Family First pretty high in their ticket preference list in other states too. If they’re perplexed or disgruntled at FF’s success, then they really are a stupid bunch.

  5. Don’t tell JSCEM, but my own enrolment was about three years out of date until I changed it upon moving back to Perth recently. Since my many moves of house were always within the same electorate, alerting the AEC to them was never high on my list of priorities, although I was conscious of a possible Robert Dean scenario.

  6. Just some corrections to previous entries.

    David Walsh. The Democrats did preference Family First, but their preferences were not the crucial ones. The crucial preferences which pushed Family First above the Greens was the Labor Party’s dodgy preference deal.

    Emily, The Greens did not win any Senate seats that election where One Nation scored a large vote.

    I for one am appalled at what the government is pushing. I believe that we are fast heading the way of the US, where each party will use it’s terms in office to change electoral laws to gain re-election.

    What a sad state of affairs.

  7. Dinesh :
    Kerry Nettle won her seat on One Nation preferences in 2001. Do you really think One Nation voters would have allocated them preferences in normal circumstances?

    My point is, the dems and greens benefited from GTV deals for years and didn’t complain – they lose one seat to it and suddenly begin acting self-righteous.

  8. The penultimate count of the 2001 NSW senate election was

    ONP 7.2%
    DEM 12.4%
    GRN 8.9%

    off primary votes of 5.6%, 6.1% and 4.3% respectively. Dinesh, I assume, is talking about the 1998 election where the ONP senate vote was 9% nationally and the GRN vote was 2.7%

    Emily, I dispute your characterisation of Nettle’s victory as the result of a “deal”. At that point, ONP disliked the Democrats (with 7 seats) more than the Greens (2 seats). The Greens only became “public enemy number one” with the demise of the Democrats and it is possible that ONP voters would have preferred them ahead of the Dems.

    And *which* years did the Greens benefit from GVT? One seat in 2001, none in 1998, Bob Brown got up in 1996 on Lib prefs, but the remaining candidate was from the ALP. Same thing with Dee Margetts in 1993. Jo Valentine made it in 1990 on ALP prefs, but again the remaining candidate was a Lib. Mostly they have benefited from compulsory preferences, not GVT.

    Finally, the minor parties have been acting self-righteous for years, it’s not a sudden thing :^)

  9. The difference between NSW in 2001 and Victoria in 2004 is that in 2001, the Greens polled 4.4% primary vote, the Democrats 6.2% and One Nation 5.6%. In 2001, one of those three parties was going to win the final seat. Even without ticket voting, the Green and Democrat point would have coalesced at some point and got ahead of One Nation and elected either a Green or Democrat. The result was due to preferential voting as much as group ticket voting.

    In Victoria in 2004, Family First polled 1.9%, the Greens 8.8% and Labor 7.5% over the second quota. It took an extraordinary sequence of preferences to elect Family First, and this result would have been extremely unlikley to have ever occured without group ticket voting.

    What is forgotten about NSW in 2001 was that a gentleman called Mick Gallagher from the No GST/Abolish Child Support polled 0.65%, but because of the way various preference deals involving Greens and other micro-parties were registered, came perilously close to election. By the time he was excluded, his vote had risen to 4.9%, One Nation 5.7%, Democrats 6.3% and Greens 6.6%. Had Gallagher’s vote been any higher, he would have been elected on One Nation and Green preferences, and we would have heard a lot more complaints than we did about Family First.

    To the Greens credit, they were much more direct with their preferences in 2004, having almost been burnt in 2001.

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