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Jan 6, 2013

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As far as I can see none of the Australian media have picked it up,  but the BBC had the story this morning: “Hungary’s constitutional court has struck down a controversial electoral law that critics said would have favoured the ruling party, Fidesz.” (Read more about it here.)

Fidesz, which started out as a radical liberal party but turned itself into a conservative party during the 1990s, won a large majority in the 2010 Hungarian election. Since then it has embarked on a number of controversial measures. Among the changes to the electoral law, what seems to have aroused most opposition was a requirement that voters had to enrol at least 15 days before polling day.

That has now been struck down by the court, and the government has said it will comply with the ruling – even though, having a two-thirds majority in parliament, it could at least in theory have amended the constitution to get around it.

And this is interesting, of course, because it echoes what the Howard government tried to do in Australia back when it had a Senate majority. Amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act in 2006 provided for the rolls to close on the same day writs were issued for a federal election. Just as in Hungary, the ostensible reason was to crack down on possible electoral fraud.

Also just as in Hungary, the real reason, quite transparently, was to disenfranchise young and itinerant voters who were more likely to vote for left-of-centre parties. And the Australian provision met the same fate (after the Rudd government had failed in an attempt to repeal it), being struck down by the high court in 2010 in Rowe v Electoral Commissioner.

But Australia’s provision was more drastic: if a government were to issue the writs on the same day it made the announcement of an election, as is quite possible, it would have given people essentially no time to fix their enrolment. In Hungary they would at least have had until 15 days before the election date.

Rather than a story about the bastardry of John Howard, however, this is really a story about different expectations in Australia and in Europe. What upset people in Hungary was the idea of any requirement for pre-enrolment at all: the established practice there, and in most of the rest of the continent, was that if you showed up at a polling place with proof of your eligibility to vote (usually an ID card of some sort) then you would be allowed to.

Australia has always been different. Our elections have been based on pre-prepared rolls, and you had to enrol first in order to vote. Eligibility alone was not enough.

A hundred years ago, that was one of the things that made Australia a world leader in electoral practice; our system guaranteed the integrity of the roll at a time when other countries were plagued by ramshackle or corrupt administration. Its relevance in the twenty-first century is less obvious.

New South Wales and Victoria have already moved to automatic updating of the electoral roll, and the commonwealth will go the same way prior to this year’s election. (Antony Green explains the issue in some detail here.) We may not get voluntary voting any time soon, but at least in some respects we’re moving closer to European practice.

Charles Richardson — Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson

Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson has contributed to Crikey since 2002, and was a ministerial adviser in the Kennett government and a former editorial manager at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.

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