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. Achtung Villyum!
    As I had hoped to outline in Crikey piecee, most democracies in the world (a) don’t have compulsory voting (or enrolment) and (b) do have automatic enrolment. I don’t bellieve one is the logical extension of the other. Actually, around the world compulsory enrolment tends to go with elector-initiated enrolment (ie it’s up to the elector to “obey the law”) as here.

    Usually (say, in European countries) it’s really a matter of local councils, when there’s an election coming, preparing a list of people who are eligible to vote so they can avail themselves of the democratic process if they wish. Scary.

    To Big Brother types such as (presumably) you Villyum, I simply pose the rhetorical question at bottom of this letter.

  2. Saying that, I should acknowledge I hadn’t given much thought to whether I’d support it if we didn’t have compulsory voting. Now that I have, I don’t see why not. Canada seems to have an opt-out clause, which seems the best idea.

  3. The UK has compulsory enrolment which became very controversial when the poll tax was introduced. A million people disappeared from the UK electoral roll at the time.

    In the UK, when you move, your electoral enrolment is very often transferred with you. When I was working in St Andrews on the Scottish election in 1999, there were all sorts of problems created by all the students in St Andrews University residences being on the local electoral roll. Almost none of them voted because they had little or no connection with the local area, but under UK local government rules, they were transferred because of the connection to council ratings.

    There was an additional problem because while Fife Council would put new students on every year, they never seemed to take them off. So four years after the previous local government election, all the 2-bed flats had eight occupants. In the UK you are sent a voter card which you present when you vote, and the local LibDem I was working with was terrified the generally conservative voters in the units were all going to multiple vote.

    We in Australia have always been very flexible about where people are enrolled, always happy to leave university college students enrolled at their parent’s address. We even allow the peculiar fiction of allowing married couples to be registered at different addresses, a little lurk they maintain to avoid paying land tax on one of the properties. We also need to allow for people who have their cars registered at an office address so that they can get parking permits.

    As long as voters say they have somewhere that is their normal residence, we tend to be happy just to enrol them at that address.

    Australia’s roll system is much better than the UK’s and the AEC is well aware of many of these little oddities about where Australians like to say they live.

  4. [Actually, around the world compulsory enrolment tends to go with elector-initiated enrolment (ie it’s up to the elector to “obey the law”) as here.]

    Which is pretty weird if you think about it. If the government has enough information on an unenrolled individual to chase them up for a small fine (or whatever punishment), then surely they have enough information for the far less time consuming task of adding them to the roll.

  5. It is weird DW, I agree. I suppose the logic kind of evolves as here: “well, it’s up to the citizen to obey the law … ”

    I did not know the UK had compulsory rego Antony. Are we sure?

  6. Peter, just doing a quick bit of research on the subject, it’s a little complex. The roll is maintained by an annual canvass by the Council and residents are required to reply to the canvass letters, but it seems a little unclear that they have to register. Perhaps that’s all because they allow non-citizens and others to enrol, but you can hardly force foreigners to vote in your election. They’ve done so many fiddles with UK electoral law in the last decade without actually managing to come up with a consistent set of rules.

    They still use the system Australia abandoned in the 19th century of using annual canvasses with the electoral roll set for a particular date with some supplementary rolls.

  7. Excellent idea and should be implemented at State and Federal levels with compulsory voting to stay. I commend Nathan Rees for taking up Peter Brent’s idea.

    Bernard is off the mark with this.

  8. [Peter, my position is that I’m actually inclined to favour automatic enrolment if we have compulsory voting which we shouldn’t.]
    My position is we should have automatic enrollment AND voluntary voting. 😀

  9. I think that both automatic enrollment and compulory voting are good ideas. I do go along with the idea that voting should be a right and a responsibility. After all, its how we select some of the most influential people in the country (even if some of them are idiots), who can pass laws that affect us greatly.

    That said, i think that if you are not willing to stand up and participate in the process then you have no right to bitch about the result of the process. It really annoys me that people i know who dont vote will then carry on and complain as if their opinion should mean something.

  10. [I do go along with the idea that voting should be a right and a responsibility. ]
    But that is impossible because you can’t ensure people fill in the ballot in a way that is formal. So compulsory voting ultimately means compulsory attendance.

    I think it is wrong for the State to demand people go to a polling place on election days.

  11. I’m also up for (more or less) compulsory enrolment of some kind but voluntary voting. Yes, compulsory voting from an enforcement perspective just means compulsory attendance (at a booth or by some other method as noted in #14). However, while informal voting cannot be policed, some voters probably feel compelled to vote formally anyway. They may, for instance, believe they have a moral obligation to obey the law, even when there is clearly no prospect of a breach being detected or prosecuted.

    Unfortunately “compulsory voting” is now being proposed for local government elections in Tasmania, the main arguments in favour that I have seen being (i) the desire to forcibly increase the participation rate, although it is comparatively high already (ii) tinfoil-hat stuff about postal voting supposedly leading to risks of massive fraud. I find the proposal silly and had a semi-libertarian rant about it all at

    I’m not bothered in the least about the Big Brother angles. I just think that when you force people to participate who otherwise would not do so, in an election concerning which public understanding is and always will be limited, then you don’t actually increase effective participation. Rather you coerce people to participate ineffectively and invite those who are good at bagging superficial and apathetic votes to do so.

    Indeed, it’s spurious to argue (as the GetUp director is quoted as doing) that there is a responsibility to vote to ensure a representative parliament. That argument falls over whenever an elector is not sufficiently informed about politics to be able to reliably cast a vote that best reflects their interests or desires.

    Making people enrol is fine by me though. I don’t mind going a token distance down the slippery slope, and forced enrolment but not forced “voting” strikes about the right balance for me between personal freedom and protection from the consequences of one’s own disorganisation and ignorance weeks out from the event.

    Oh, and any increase in encouragement to enrol should, in my view, be accompanied by strong measures to protect unwilling recipients against the use of electoral roll information for the sending of unsolicited junkmail and other forms of unwanted junk communication.

  12. Bernard Keane should get over himself. I support ID cards, voting rights on presentation of said card, and compulsory voting. It’s a great pity the Libs sank the Australia Card in 1987, it would have saved us most of these problems. 19th century notions of personal privacy (actually 19th century upper class notions) are simply meaningless in the kind of urban mass society we now live in. State agencies between then already know virtually everything we do. 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, as well as making voting much easier for the marginalised social groups that are currently most likely not to vote. (I’d also abolish cash and have all transactions conducted with ID cards. This would eliminate the cash economy and tax evasion.)

  13. If i had it my compulsory voteing would be srcaped as i see know good comming form it just look at NSW case in point if there where no compulsory voteing & we had frist passed the post The ALP would not see the ligth of day. I for one have given up on voteing and will just pay the fine from hear on out .

  14. We don’t allow paying taxes to be voluntary so why voting? Our system has two advantages as I see it – firstly and most importantly it gives solid legitimacy for contentious electoral decisions, I am thinking of the 25% that put George Bush into power, and secondly the absence of campaigning simply to get people out to vote.

    Yes to ID cards when accessing services – absolutely not if it means having to pull out a card to show some effing copper in the streets.

  15. The almost religious zeal with which certain people are attempting to enforce compulsory voting is difficult to understand. Most countries don’t have it and don’t want it, and there are much better arguments against it than for it, such as:

    – In its purest form democracy is the free expression by the people as to the kind of government they want, without any assumptions about the worthiness or otherwise of anyone else’s preference. Therefore, expressing nothing at all is no less legitimate than expressing something. Apathy and anarchy, for example, are as legitimate to express, or not express, as anything else. Compulsory voting contradicts this principle. Compulsory voting effectively means, “You must express your freedom of choice or we’ll slap you with a fine.” Absolutely ludicrous.

    – Compulsory voting makes elections unfair. If voting were not compulsory you know that every vote is from someone who cares enough about the result to make the effort to vote for the candidate of their choice. As it is, there are any number of votes cast by people who are only there to avoid a fine. You could argue that those people could vote informally if they want, but what if, given that they are there, they cast a random formal vote, or a donkey vote, just for something to do? I have no doubt that there have been candidates elected before where the donkey vote got them over the line.

    – It is up to the parties and the candidates to demonstrate to us that they are worth voting for. The parties in the U.S. use enormous resources just trying to persuade people to turn out to vote, and that’s as it should be. Why should people have to show up to vote if they think that all politicians are crooks or liars or will never give a straight answer? They should be able to express their disdain for government and politics by ignoring the process altogether.

    I am over 40 but I have never enrolled to vote.

    P.S. I like the preferential voting system. It’s much fairer than first past the post. However, in line with non-compulsory voting, preferences should also not be compulsory. If you choose to vote, you should be able to put just a ‘1’ if you want, or just a ‘1’ and a ‘2’, etc.

  16. why stop there Psephos? A bar code tattoo would surely be even more effective than a card. It could store everything- school results, money credit, etc

  17. [You don’t have to go to a polling place on election days. You can always pre-poll vote or postal vote.]
    Why should the State be allowed to compel people to do that?

  18. Academics can theorise as much as they like about the finer points of democratic practice, but the fact is our system of ‘compulsory voting’ (strictly speaking, you don’t have to vote at all) works well and would be improved by the Rees reforms.

  19. [The evolution of democracy?]
    How is the State forcing people to ‘vote’ an example of the “evolution of democracy”?

    I think it is the complete opposite, it is a relic from a time when people didn’t have rights that limited the actions of the government.

  20. In the Netherlands, there is compulsory enrolment and voluntary voting. Or at least, I don’t remember enroling, so it must have happened automatically when I turned eighteen. I suspect it may also happen when you move house; you have to go to the local council offices and inform them of your new address.

    It works quite well. A couple of weeks before the election, everyone gets their “stemkaart” (“vote card”) in the letterbox. You take it with you to the polling booth, along with some form of identification, and hand it over in order to be marked off the roll. The “vote card” is mainly to tell you when the election is on and where your closest booth is, but also has a section for those who can’t vote on the day and want to authorise someone else to cast their vote for them.

    If you don’t want to vote, you rip it up (or add it to your collection, whatever).

  21. [How is the State forcing people to ‘vote’ an example of the “evolution of democracy”?]

    Over time there has been an increase is the percent of population voting.

    To remove compulsory voting would reverse this trend.

  22. I’m in favour of compulsory voting for a number of reasons, but there is one point I wanted to pick up on.

    I spent a little bit of time in the US for their last election and yes, all parties spend ridiculous sums of money and resources to get out the vote. This is not, in my view, a positive.

    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.

    Compulsory voting ensures parties spend all their money convincing moderates (swing voters), to vote in a particular way, instead of convincing rusted-on supporters to actually go and vote.

  23. Quite a few comments assume the possibility of lodging an informal or blank vote. I support the status quo. If electronic voting machines or other means are used to force people to lodge a “valid” vote, we will have gone a bridge too far.

    As for automatic electoral roll updates, there will be a huge number of Army types (for example) who will not know whether they are enrolled at Mum’s place, Puckapunyal, Singleton or a dozen other locations. That will be very confusing for the booth workers who are trying to help them to vote. They will have no chance, because the enrolment will have been updated due to a change of address for a car rego, followed by banking information, then the partner’s social security payments, then… the list could be as long as your imagination.

    Don’t think that this is idle speculation. I have met hundreds of such lost electors during time spend as a Declarations Officer at polling booths. It will get worse, not better.

  24. I’m in favour of compulsory voting and automatic enrolment but I think the ways one can vote should be expanded. I propose that AEC sends out cards to voters with a unique ID which they can SMS back in along with their vote. (Premium SMS cost is 55c. SMS entrants must have premium service access. SMS entries via the Internet are ineligible. Entries are deemed to be received at the time of receipt into the promotion database and NOT at the time of transmission by the entrant.)

  25. O yes if you think its so great then what do you call the last state poll in NSW lets see them work there ass oof to get the vote out in state where the goverment roten to core and still wins like i side you never get me to polling both ever agiane im fed up polles and compulsory is worng and i hate my state goverment so dont you dare tell me its rigth .

  26. I read somewhere that in jurisdictions with voluntary voting a third of the cost is encouraging supporters to vote. Ending compulsory voting would therefore likely drive up the cost of voting. 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).

  27. the best way to bring compulsory voteing to end is for ever one note to trun on polling day they cant fine every one and then it becomes unworkable .

  28. 16

    There are good arguments for ID cards.

    Reducing the non-driving use of drivers licences and thus the bias towards those with drivers licences in non-driving situations.

    Reducing the opportunity for identity fraud (not eliminating it though).

    Such cards should not however be required to be carried and presented on police request.

    Eliminating cash would also make many other crimes harder.

    Armed robbery would be pointless on many shops because they would not have the cash to steal or anything else of a sufficient value in an easy to steal size.

    There would be no ATMs to rob.

    People would have less to be mugged for.

    Criminal transactions and money laundering would be much harder as transactions would be traceable.

    Bad luck if you are a bank teller, coin collector or other legitimate benefactor of the cash system.

  29. 32

    A mass boycott of elections would only make them turn a profit if they finned everyone (What proportion of the electorate have to not turn up and be fined for an election to make a profit?). Fine resistance would be smaller but more problematic for the government but community service and gaol would sort most of them out.

  30. o get lost with that one tom id cards are out and i get a lawer a figth you every inc of the way and id mugings be would be up a long counterfiting off id cards it my work year or two but you know how pepole are they find a way around it tom.

  31. 35

    I know some people will always find ways of committing crime but abolishing cash would reduce crime.

    Also check your spelling and use the odd capital letter too.

  32. if every one dosnote pay the fine then what happens to law the jude would have to put every in jail i dont think the state would bear the cost he or she have to tose the law out as it can not be Inforced

  33. [Over time there has been an increase is the percent of population voting.]
    That’s simply because for a long time women, slaves, or men that didn’t own property simply didn’t have the RIGHT to vote.

    There is no disputing that all adults should have the right to vote, the question is WHY should the state be allowed to force people to exercise that right? If they are being forced, then is it a right or an obligation?

    It should be a right, and that includes leaving it up to each person to decide whether or not they wish to exercise that right.

  34. 37

    Most people will still vote even there is a big campaign to boycott the vote. Most people contacted by the electoral commission about not voting will either pay the fine or provide an excuse that gets them out of paying the fine.

  35. 38

    There are several reasons that voting should be compulsory.

    Campaign costs.

    Ensuring there are approximately the same number of people who actually vote in each electorate (as opposed to just enrolment).

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

  36. So tom do you know how old this law is you and i where not even around when it became law in 20s and yet your just happy to keep it on the books you think someone would make shore that they bring it back up for a vote just to keep every one happy .

  37. [There is no disputing that all adults should have the right to vote, the question is WHY should the state be allowed to force people to exercise that right? If they are being forced, then is it a right or an obligation?]

    It is both a right and a responsibility. They are not mutually exclusive terms.

  38. And tom what about NSW if there every was a case to get ride off compulsory vote its sands one the rest of the state would have liked to see the Back off the ALP but good old Sydeny, Newcastle, and Wollongong got in the way off the rest off the state in the last poll .

  39. 42

    It is not some obscure unforced law. It is a widely known and regularly enforced law. The age of the law is of no concern to me.

  40. Mr. Brent writes:

    Most democracies overseas have some form of automatic enrolment, and most don’t have compulsion; they just do it to enable people to vote on election-day if they choose to do so.

    It would be nice if such compulsion were based on democratic principles, but usually reasons are more prosaic for keeping tabs, such as tax collection, monitoring for welfare cheats etc. The fact that governments insist on automatic enrolment but are indifferent as to whether you vote when you do, should be the clue.

    Besides, such compulsion by the state cannot be in the name of democracy for, as Showson rightly says, it is the opposite of it. Democracy has always been about freedom from the state rather than coercion by it. It is depressing that some think this a relic of the past. I would have thought privacy and individual autonomy is more desirable (and more achievable) than ever before.

    What I find more of a problem, however, is the underlying assumption behind all of this activity, namely that the problem with democracy is voter apathy and that groups like indigenous communities need more compulsion to get them to vote. Given the (recent) past record of the political parties they would be voting for, is that really where the problem lies?

  41. 44

    Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong have the vast majority of the population of New South Wales. If it was not for that part of the state then NSW would be a low population state (around a million or so) where the Nationals would be a major party. You seem to be of one acre, one vote views on seat distribution. Need I say more?

  42. Well tom we got a marine park that we did not need i call that been shit on from Sydney. A done deal with the Greens we where not even conslalted on the matter before it happend they could not find a nice ALP seat to put it in .

  43. [It is both a right and a responsibility. They are not mutually exclusive terms.]
    WHY is it a responsibility of people that they vote? What gives the State the right to tell a person what to do in this regard? Just asserting it doesn’t make it a fact.

    Over a million people who should’ve voted at the last federal election didn’t. Many more people voted informally. Fining even more people won’t change that.

  44. [The fact that governments insist on automatic enrolment but are indifferent as to whether you vote when you do, should be the clue.]
    There is no contradiction. Automatic enrolment provides the maximum expression of voting rights, voluntary voting lets each person decide individually whether or not they wish to exercise that right.

    When people are forced to vote it is no longer a right, it becomes an obligation, which simply encourages more people to stay off the electoral role, which decreases voting access.

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