Ve haff vays of making you enrol

Bernard Keane of Crikey says nein danke to automatic enrolment plot:

This is about finding new ways to enforce a law that can’t be enforced effectively at the moment. But if you listen to Rees, you’d think it was for The Kids. Rees pointedly referred to the Board of Studies as one of the agencies that would be compulsorily providing personal information to the Electoral Commission. It’s characteristic of this shabby government that it would use an educational body as a means of law enforcement.

It’s disappointing to see the allegedly progressive GetUp mob not merely endorsing this shameful encroachment on basic rights but calling for it to be universal. Director Simon Sheik wants it to be applied at the Commonwealth level. “Australia has a proud tradition of compulsory voting and citizens have a responsibility as well as a right to vote to make sure that our parliaments are truly representative.”

Rubbish. Compulsory voting is a blatant encroachment on basic rights and the Rees government is now using its citizens’ private information, never intended for the purpose, to enforce it.

Nicht so schnell, responds Peter Brent at Mumble:

At the last federal election, some 340,000 people unsuccessfully attempted a declaration vote for the House of Representatives. Most failed because their enrolment details were not up to date or they had dropped off the roll. An unknown number of others would have simply turned around and walked out upon discovering they were not on the roll for their electorate. Many people (particularly young ‘uns) believe “the government” already automatically updates their enrolment. Read for example this amusing letter an elector fired off to the Australian Electoral Commission after receiving an enrolment form. Keane writes, chillingly, that “Citizens wouldn’t be given any say in this use of their confidential data. There’ll be no opting out. You may think you’re just paying your car rego but in fact you’ll be handing information to the Electoral Commission. You will have no choice.” Stock up on the ammo and canned food!

But Big Brother is already here. The AEC (which currently maintains the electoral rolls for federal and state elections) has been getting this info from government agencies for almost a decade.

Indeed, the Sydney Morning Herald reports that “the idea for automatic enrolment should be credited to the academic and blogger Peter Brent, who raised the reform last year in a discussion paper for the Democratic Audit of Australia”. Here’s what I said about the matter a few days ago, which I buried in an already overlong post:

The New South Wales government has introduced an interesting piece of legislation into the upper house entitled the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Amendment (Automatic Enrolment) Bill. Some highlights:

• Information provided by government agencies will be used to automatically enrol voters and update enrolment details. The Electoral Commissioner will be empowered to demand information from public servants, universities, police officers, local councils and water and electricity providers. Drivers licence details are likely to provide rich pickings, while the Board of Studies will be able to ensure high school students are on the roll before they turn 18. Prospective enrollees will be contacted (perhaps only by email or SMS) and given seven days to provide a reason why they shouldn’t be enrolled. The government has good reason to believe reluctant voters lean to the left, but one wonders how popular the measure will make it among those who preferred to remain off the roll. Arguing that all participation is good participation, GetUp! wants the federal government to follow suit, while VexNews reckons it’s “a trend likely to catch on with Labor governments in other states”. Indeed, its operation exclusive to New South Wales would create difficulties: federal enrolment and roll-keeping would have to be decoupled, and voters would still have to enrol federally in the traditional fashion. Bernard Keane at Crikey calls the measure a “shameful encroachment on basic rights”, and it is indeed striking how often the bill thumbs its nose at the Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act. David Walsh in comments correctly observes that automatic enrolment is a logical corollary to compulsory voting: personally, I’m in favour of neither.

• It is proposed that registered parties and independent MPs be provided on request with “the names and the addresses of electors who voted (other than silent electors and itinerant electors), whether they voted personally or by post and, if they voted at a polling place for the district for which the electors were enrolled, the location of that polling place”. This puts into the shade the South Australian government’s recent effort to allow access to voters’ date-of-birth details, which they were unable to get through the upper house.

• Besides that, the bill contains some commendable measures, in particular allowing voters to enrol and cast provisional votes on polling day.

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.

77 comments on “Ve haff vays of making you enrol”

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  1. Automatic enrolment provides no more the ‘maximum expression of voting rights’ than picking the person up, driving them to the polling booth and sticking a pencil in their hand.

    It is why it has usually been introduced for reasons that have little to do with voting rights than registering individuals’ whereabouts for other reasons, but using the procedure of the democratic process to justify it. ‘Maximum expressions of voting rights’ come from below, not from above, in my view.

  2. [Automatic enrolment provides no more the ‘maximum expression of voting rights’ ]
    I disagree. By automatically enrolling people it means that the option is always open for the person to vote if they choose to do so.

    In our current system if someone doesn’t want to vote and doesn’t want to be fined, then it is in their interests not to enroll. But then, what happens if they decide three days before an election that they want to vote this time? Under the current system they can’t vote. Whereas if they are automatically enrolled they can. It is the VOTER’S CHOICE what they do.

    Automatic enrollment and voluntary voting means the electoral system works to the benefit of voters.

    Voluntary enrollment and compulsory voting means the electoral system works for the benefit of political parties.

  3. [Psephos
    Posted Wednesday, November 18, 2009 at 9:34 am | Permalink
    ….. I don’t see any harm in formalising that into an ID system that would eliminate all kinds of fraud and abuse, including identity theft,….]

    So identity theft isn’t a problem in the US?

    I agree with a formalised ID system, but I wouldn’t put prevention of identity theft as one of the advantages, it actually makes it easier, only one number needs to be obtained to perform the theft.

  4. Showson I get what you’re getting at, but there are two things being mixed up. By all means barriers to voting should be removed. Mr Brent’s criticism of Howard’s early closure of the rolls is quite justified and that is the example you use. That doesn’t need automatic enrolment, just the removal of any barriers to it.

    It may or may not be in the interests of the parties to have auto-enrolment, but it is certainly in their interests to make it the issue rather than whether they are offering anything worth voting for.

  5. Compulsory vote is a positive.
    1) It removes the incentive to make it hard to vote, as has/is happen in the good old USA.
    2) It removes the excuse, don’t blame me I didn’t vote.
    3) It reminds people they live in a society. As well as taking advantage of the benefits ( roads, schools ect.) you have responsibilities.

  6. Voluntary voting gives the crazies and the wealthy undue influence in our parliaments as they have more zeal and more money to get out the vote than do ordinary folk.

    Strictly speaking, it’s not compulsory voting. After your name is crossed off the roll, you are not forced to vote. But it’s always salutary to remember the poor sods around the world who have no right to vote at all or those who risk death or injury to go to the polls.

    We have a wonderful electoral set-up in Australia and the Rees reforms will make it even better.

  7. [1) It removes the incentive to make it hard to vote, as has/is happen in the good old USA.]
    Automatic enrollment would fix this.
    [Strictly speaking, it’s not compulsory voting. After your name is crossed off the roll, you are not forced to vote.]
    At the very least you are forced to attend a polling place and accept a ballot, or mail back a postal vote. Why should you be compelled to do this?

  8. [strictly speaking, you don’t have to vote at all]

    That depends on what you mean by “strictly speaking”. I had a look at my own state’s electoral act (Tas) recently and it is crystal clear that the law says you have to take the ballot paper to the booth and fill out the paper in accord with the instructions. Returning a blank ballot is clearly illegal, deliberately voting contrary to the instructions is clearly illegal. However, the illegality cannot be policed or enforced under normal circumstances.

    But what would happen if, just hypothetically, a blog poster had admitted to casting a write-in vote for Fat Cat at a Legislative Council election? Would such a public statement in theory be sufficient evidence on which to hang a charge of failure to vote according to the instructions against that voter and have them fined $40?

    [You only try to ‘get out the vote’ of people you know will vote for your candidate. So what happens? Parties spend a lot of their $$$ convincing rusted on supporters to actually go to the polling booth and virtually ignore everyone else. One of the results of that narrowing of focus is that all the loonies on the left and right come out to vote and the moderates stay home.]

    But not in continental European nations with voluntary voting, most of which have far more effectively diverse party systems than our own (and often better turnout rates than the USA too). The USA is a disfunctional example of voluntary voting because its use of FPP makes it difficult for third parties to effectively exploit the holes left when the majors pitch only to their rusted-ons. After all, since a third-party vote in FPP is a wasted vote, the swinging voter may as well stay home even if a third party that matches their orientation more closely is running. But in quota-proportional systems or even STV it’s a different matter; if parties pitch to a limited support base then other parties can get the votes the majors have neglected.

    [A system of fines based on ability to pay (like in Scandinavia) should be introduced so that fines have similar effect on rich and poor alike (and help out government finances).]

    This aspect is interesting. I know someone (with many strong and often eccentric principles) who refuses to vote because he is vehemently ideologically opposed to compulsory voting. Every election he gets a letter in the mail and every election he immediately pays the fine without resisting. In effect he just keeps “buying” the right to not vote, and he can afford this easily so the fine is no deterrent at all to his decision not to vote.

    [Reducing the chance of getting away with a “I will punish you if you vote” threat working.]

    Yes, this is a legitimate problem with voluntary voting, especially with the prevalence of over-18s who now find no economic alternative to living at home with their possibly over-controlling parents. But another way to reduce that chance is to ramp up the penalties for coercing a person not to vote to the point where nobody would bother doing so. It’s only a vote, after all.

  9. [Strictly speaking, it’s not compulsory voting. After your name is crossed off the roll, you are not forced to vote. ]

    We’ve been over this several times. The Commonwealth Act says it is compulsory to cast a ballot, not just get your name crossed off. If you get your name crossed off, take the ballot paper, and put it in the bin, you will be recorded as having not voted.

  10. Compulsory voting gives the authorities reason to look into why people didn`t vote and this would lead to a higher detection rate (which is a better deterrent in most cases than a high penalty)

    The US provides us with example another benefit of compulsory voting. The authorities will provide enough resources for all the voters to vote because they expect almost all of them to turn up and vote.

  11. Rees will make it better will or will he hes just trying to get his govement over line he kowns hes dead duck if dosnot do something this time around ?

  12. If you care so little for the privilege of contributing to the governance of your country, then you can simply lodge a blank ballot paper. It’s may not be legal but you won’t be penalised (at least not by any earthly authority).

  13. [The Piping Shrike
    Posted Wednesday, November 18, 2009 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    fredn, in the good old Oz we had compulsory voting while quite a few people were prevented from voting. ]

    True, Howard did his best. But we do vote on a weekend and we do have polling places in all locations.

  14. I believe a court has ruled that informal voting is not illegal, because the actual act of voting is private and cannot be supervised by the law. So what is compulsory is getting your name crossed off the roll, taking a ballot paper, and putting it in the ballot box.

  15. What is compulsory is doing as per 70, or being in a position to explain reasonably why you were prevented on the day from doing as per 70?

  16. AEC backgrounder here:

    has some info on this.

    [It is not an offence to vote informally in a federal election, nor is it an offence to
    encourage other voters to vote informally. However, anyone who encourages electors
    to vote informally, or to vote ‘1,2,3,3,3…’ etc on a House of Representatives ballot
    paper, will be encouraging electors to waste their votes as no vote will be counted from these ballot papers.]

    (It goes on to point out that those who encourage Langer-style voting may nonetheless be prosecuted if they give a misleading impression that Langer votes are still semi-formal.)

    I would like to know if this also applies for all state elections.

  17. I think that if you don’t want to vote in Australia then this should be supported in law by automatically forcing the non-voter’s Citizenship to be revoked. Life as a Permanent Resident in Australia is not too bad.

  18. 74

    That would only work for people with multiple citizenships as there are international agreements against making people stateless.

    Anyway $50 does the job quite well.

  19. So – a little late to the debate….but I have a query and for the life of me can’t seem to get an answer.

    An unnamed member of my family doesn’t want to vote and despite my amazingly persuasive arguments still refuses to enroll. After 10 years of trying I now no longer care as I have a perfect answer anytime he feels like whinging about the government. I simply say “Well feel free to enrol to vote and I will then feel free to listen to you…”

    My query is can someone be forced to actually enrol? If he chooses not to enroll can he be fined (or worse)?

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