An Electoral Roll Of One's Own

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When considering proposed amendments to electoral laws, it is prudent to apply the Latin question, "Cui bono?": Who benefits?

The Howard government made significant amendments to the federal electoral laws in 2006; ostensibly to address the deficiencies identified by the 2001 Shepherdson Inquiry in Queensland as well as other fraudulent practices. Some feared that the young, the poor and the vulnerable — not the natural constituency of the Coalition — would be disenfranchised if the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) enrolment procedures were tightened.

The Howard amendments did not do much to improve voter enrolment, but nor did they worsen the overall situation. At the 2001 federal election, an estimated 93.2 per cent of eligible electors were enrolled. And at the 2007 election, it was 92.3 per cent. In the intervening 2004 election, it was 91.5 per cent. Of course, the 2006 changes may well have had a disproportionate effect on the various demographics.

Last week the NSW Labor Government, well known for its sense of fair play and democratic governance, proposed a series of significant changes to the compilation of the electoral roll with the stated object of maximising voter enrolment. The headline item was the "automatic enrolment" scheme.

The NSW Electoral Commission (NSWEC) has advised the NSW Government that it believes about half of the eligible 17 and 18-year-olds in secondary schools are on the electoral roll, and that overall, only 90 per cent of entitled electors have enrolled.

Premier Nathan Rees trumpeted the new legislation as "strengthening democracy".  Apparently it takes an 83-page bill to give effect to this high-minded ideal.

The proposed amendments effectively mean that any public sector employee, police officer, local council, utilities provider or university is required to provide the NSWEC with the name, address, telephone number, mobile telephone number and email address of anyone who is eligible to be enrolled.

If passed, these arrangements will allow the NSWEC to update the rolls using data like school enrolments with the Board of Studies to enrol 17 and 18-year-olds, or as the NSWEC itself has previously suggested, data from the NSW Seniors Card scheme, which ordinarily provides aged people with concessions and discounts.

The Commissioner will then endeavour to contact the person so enrolled (by mail, phone, SMS or email) to ensure the accuracy of the enrolment details. No reply leaves the affected person on the roll.

Access to this type of data for electoral purposes is not unprecedented. The AEC has access to the data maintained by Centrelink and Medicare. However, it uses this to verify existing enrolments and "clean" the rolls. Updated personal details are used to contact people already on the roll to alert them to their obligation to advise the AEC of their new arrangements. Failure to respond means removal from the roll.

The data gathered by the NSW changes, however, will put and leave the person on the roll until the NSWEC is told otherwise by the voter.

Furthermore, the proposed legislation will allow unenrolled, but otherwise eligible, voters to turn up on polling day to both enrol and vote.

As anyone who has worked as a polling place officer or handed out how to votes on election day knows, not all electors are filled with joy upon taking part in the festival of democracy. Lengthened queues and delays in voting, as well as the likely delay in finalising a count while awaiting verification of the enrolments received that day, are ready ingredients for frustration and frayed tempers.

On the Macquarie Street blog, Antony Green said last week that NSW would be unable to move ahead with a change this large without the agreement of the AEC because of the Joint Roll Agreement, whereby the AEC maintains and updates the roll for itself and all the states and territories. NSW has been part of this arrangement since 1996.

In fact, as is explicitly noted in the Second Reading Speech, the Bill: "makes clear that New South Wales will no longer rely on the Commonwealth to prepare and maintain rolls for New South Wales elections". Correcting the Bradmanesque Green does feel a bit like punching baby Jesus in the face.

The Commonwealth is already contemplating its own reforms through Special Minister of State Joe Ludwig’s "Strengthening Australia’s Democracy" consultations. Instead of waiting for Canberra and for the other states to come on board, NSW Labor has apparently decided that it needs its own electoral roll for the 2011 election.

On present indicators, NSW Labor is going to need every vote it can muster so as to avoid electoral oblivion. Perhaps it believes that those eligible electors who would not be on the roll if it were not for automatic enrolment, like the young and the vulnerable, are more likely to vote Labor.

If that is the case, it is easy to envisage that, instead of a test of broad electoral appeal, Labor will mount a campaign akin to the "get out the vote" drives in the United States where parties and community groups undertake sustained efforts to get likely supporters enrolled and able to vote.

With automatic enrolment in place, it’s a case of telling people that they had better vote even if they don’t think they’re on the roll, because there’s every likelihood they are, in fact, enrolled. Or using the period of the election campaign to identify the unenrolled and get them to enrol and vote on polling day.

Planning and development for the Smart Electoral Roll Project have been underway for several years now. In fact, the process is so advanced that the NSW Parliament voted without comment in April for a budget variation for the NSWEC of $1.4 million to meet capital costs for the project. They voted well before this enabling legislation was introduced.

While it has sat on the NSWEC’s working party for this project, the AEC has expressed grave doubts about the proposal. Last year, it told the Federal Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters that the data proposed for use by NSW, "will not be able to provide consistent and complete citizenship data or date of birth data", and that as neither consent nor a signature would be required for automatic enrolment, it was doubtful that the DPP could pursue false enrolment or failure to vote prosecutions. It also referred to the obvious privacy and data integrity issues.

There are legitimate questions about how to best maintain the completeness, accuracy and integrity of the nation’s electoral rolls, and how best to make use of new and emerging technologies to do so. Yet, with a federal election in 2010 and a NSW election in March 2011, having separate electoral rolls for NSW is a recipe for confusion and chaos, and at its worst, an exercise in cynical electoral engineering.

Voters automatically enrolled on the NSW roll may not realise that they will need to make a separate application to the AEC to be on the Commonwealth roll for the 2010 election, regardless of any effort by either agency to make this understood. Again, this is most likely to affect those voters who NSW argues are presently disenfranchised. Does it matter to State Labor if these voters fall off the AEC roll and can’t vote for Rudd — but are eligible to vote in NSW in 2011?

As naive as it sounds, these new arrangements will unfortunately cement partisan calculation into what should be beyond the reach of politics: the public administration of our electoral system.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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