Missing voters

7 Nov 2007

Nearly one million Australian adults are not enrolled to vote. PETER BRENT and BRIAN COSTAR look at why.

IN MODERN democracies like Australia’s it is essential that the maximum possible number of people vote at elections. To help achieve this, we have had compulsory enrolment since 1911 and compulsory voting since 1924. The latter certainly works - we can confidently predict that around 93 per cent of electors will turn out to vote on 24 November.

What is less certain is how many eligible citizens are not on the roll and therefore cannot and will not vote. Official figures suggest that 93 per cent of citizens living in Australia are enrolled. This is impressive by world standards, but its flip side is that nearly one million citizens are not enrolled to vote.

Of equal concern are the estimated one million Australians living overseas. Just before the 2004 election only 16,193 of that one million were enrolled to vote, so the tally of non-enrollees is probably closer to two million or 15 per cent of the current enrolment of 13.6 million.

Why are so many under the enrolment radar? One reason is that while the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) is required by law to remove ineligible people from the roll, it is constrained in enrolling the people who are eligible.

Australians are a mobile mob. When the AEC discovers, by mining data bases such driver’s license registers, that a person has moved out of their electorate, they remove their name from the electoral roll. In the last six months 143,000 names have been removed from the roll and we can’t be certain how many of them have re-enrolled.

The AEC then writes to the person at their new address inviting them to fill out a new enrolment form. Whether that invitation is accepted is effectively in the hands of the individual, since it is extremely rare for anyone to be prosecuted for non-enrolment.

Over time, then, the roll becomes increasingly inaccurate and, short of a change in the law, there is little the AEC can do about it.

Another group which contributes to roll inaccuracy is the young. Only around 80 per cent of Australians aged 18-24 are enrolled and the ratio varies greatly from state to state, with Victoria consistently the highest and the Northern Territory the lowest.

Worryingly, some young people wrongly believe that when they turn 18 they are automatically entered on the roll. Perhaps they should be.

Since early this year the AEC has been conducting $15 million media campaign, targeted at getting young people, especially 18 year olds, on the roll. The campaign was hip and slick, but its success was limited. At the 2004 election 18 year olds comprised 1.43 per cent of the total roll; now they account for 1.51 per cent. That’s not much bang for a lot of taxpayer bucks.

In 1983 the Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended to require a seven day grace period between the calling of the election and the closure of the roll. The thinking was that an election would jog people’s memories about their enrolment status.

In 2004, 423,993 citizens made good their enrolment details in the seven day period, about 78,000 of whom were new enrollees. Another 115,000 missed the cut because they tried to enrol after the seven days - so, of course, they could not vote.

When it took control of the Senate the Howard government cut the grace period for new enrolments to one working day. It defended the change by saying that the AEC could not properly check the flood of enrolments that came in during the seven days and that this left the door open to roll fraud. Both arguments were spurious and the level of mendacity employed to defend the change suggests that the real motive was politics. Remember, the young strongly support Labor and the Greens rather than the Coalition.

Remarkably and inexplicably, when the prime minister announced the date for this election date, the writ was not issued, as expected, on the next day but on the following Wednesday. This kept the roll open for three days during which 77,000 enrolment additions were processed. We don’t yet know how many of these were new.

Given the earlier grandstanding about roll fraud, why did the government do this? Could it be that it doubted the constitutionality of excluding voters from the roll in the wake of the High Court’s recent decision that invalidated the Coalition’s decision to deny all convicted prisoners the vote? Or was it because, despite the $15 million advertising campaign, the enrolment rates of the young were still so low as to be politically embarrassing? We will probably never know.

• Peter Brent is a researcher at the Australian National University. Brian Costar is a Professor of Parliamentary Democracy in the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University

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