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N.B. I'm hoping to keep the thread on this post reserved for matters that at least tangentially relate to electoral reform. The previous thread remains open for more general dis

N.B. I’m hoping to keep the thread on this post reserved for matters that at least tangentially relate to electoral reform. The previous thread remains open for more general discussion.

Assuming, as is the fashion, that the current federal government doesn’t live to see a third term, it does not appear well placed at this stage to bequeath much to history in the way of electoral reform. In this respect it stands in stark contrast to its Labor forebears: the Chifley government brought forth an enlarged parliament and proportional representation for the Senate; Whitlam, thwarted though he was by an obstructive Senate, managed to lower the voting age to 18, create Senate seats for the territories and legislate for regular redistributions; and a newly elected Hawke government promptly ushered in above-the-line voting for the Senate, randomly ordered ballot papers with candidates identified by party, and public funding for political parties.

The Rudd government came to office talking a good game on campaign finance reform, with then Special Minister of State John Faulkner turning in a commendably high-minded green paper in December 2008 and recommending that caps be imposed on political donations and election spending. However, such ideas were knocked on the head a year later at the behest of Labor potentates who complained of their impact on electorally helpful initiatives such as the ACTU’s Your Rights at Work campaign, and reportedly feared a “Blairised” party in which union influence would be diminished. Reforms of this kind have nonetheless seen the light of day at state level, as among the final acts of the Keneally and Bligh governments.

Even the excesses of the Howard government’s Senate majority years remain to be entirely undone, and two of the ones that have been – the early closure of the rolls after an election is announced and the extension of prisoner disenfranchisement – were seen off by the High Court rather than the parliament. The removal of tax deductibility on political donations of up to $1500 from businesses was, in the view of electoral law expert Graeme Orr, a not entirely welcome exception. Other measures were held up by Senate obstruction before 2010, and parliamentary inertia thereafter. Still on the to-do list is lowering the threshold at which political donations must be publicly disclosed, which the Howard government audaciously hiked from $1500 to $10,000 (which can effectively be many times that given that state and territory branches are separate entities for such purposes).

However, there have been two very significant measures of particular importance to those of us whose concern is with the counting of votes – especially given that they concern votes which are known to be left-leaning, a fact that does much to explain the politics behind the issue. One such measure was the reversal of the Howard government’s restrictions on admitting provisional votes to the count, which serve as a safety net for those who believe themselves to have been wrongly excluded from the roll or marked off as having already voted.

Prior to the 2007 election, such votes were admitted if the voter was found to have been purged from the roll after changing address, but had moved elsewhere within the same electorate. The Howard government disallowed this, and further required that those casting such votes provide identification, either at the polling booth or within a week after election day. These changes have resulted in the rate of admission of provisional votes shrinking from around 50% to 17%, and the setting aside of around 60,000 votes that would previously have been counted. With the old rules back in force, the earlier pattern should immediately reassert itself.

The second and, over the long term at least, far more significant of the reforms is what most are calling “automatic” enrolment, although the Australian Electoral Commission would prefer that you used the term “direct”. This will empower the Commission on its own initiative to either place a person on the roll or change their recorded address, based on information it derives from data-matching involving agencies such as Centrelink and the state road and traffic authorities that issue drivers licences. Such energies have previously been directed only at removing wrongly enrolled electors, which has created a widening gap between the number of eligible voters and the number actually enrolled. By the reckoning of the AEC, this had reached 1.4 million by the time of the 2010 election.

Some fairly bold claims were made for the likely electoral impact of direct enrolment when the legislation was passed in late June. A report by Heather Ewart on 7:30 noted that the envisioned transfusion of missing electors “could have changed (the) result” of the last election, and could at the very least “save (Labor) some seats” at the next. This topic evidently animated dinner table conversation at chez Ewart-Cassidy, as the next day Barrie Cassidy got to work with a pen and an envelope and calculated “an extra 1,800 votes to the ALP” in the average lower house election contest.

This would seem to take an exaggerated view of the likely efficiency of the process which the AEC is currently working to implement, at least so far as the time between now and the next election is concerned. The hundreds of thousands of names shown up by data matching will not simply be freighted on to the roll – among other things, each person will have to be contacted and given 28 days in which to object. The AEC will face much the same operational hurdles in implementing such processes as the New South Wales Electoral Commission when it established its similar SmartRoll program after automatic enrolment was introduced in that state in 2010.

After commencing with small “pilot” batches, SmartRoll was able to process 40,000 new enrolments and changes of enrolment in the four months before the March 2011 state election. Its accelerating efforts since have been sufficient to open a discernible gap between enrolment at state and federal level, with the former accounting for around 84.6% of eligible voters and the latter for 82.2% – a difference of about 140,000. However, the NSWEC spoke last year of a “full four-year cycle” to wear down the existing 400,000 to 450,000 non-enrolments, while also dealing with about 300,000 further changes of address each year.

The AEC is sounding a similarly cautious note. The commissioner, Ed Killesteyn, recently spoke of reforms that would “arrest and reverse the declining rates of enrolment we have seen over the past decade”, but take “two or three electoral cycles” to do so. The AEC program, which it calls Federal Direct Enrolment and Direct Update, will be unrolled in smaller states later this year, and is not anticipated to operate in all states and territories until the middle of next year.

One could therefore generously speculate that as many as a quarter of a million extra enrolments will be processed by the time of an election held a year from now, compared with the 1.5 million assumed in Barrie Cassidy’s calculation. There is also the question of the proportion of such people who will actually turn out to vote, which can be presumed to be well below the average. Contrary to the 90% assumed by Cassidy, the NSWEC reported that 76.2% of those directly enrolled turned out for the NSW state election, which would include a number who would have taken the effort to amend their enrolment if SmartRoll hadn’t done it for them. The 60-40 Labor-Coalition split used by Cassidy also seems a shade bullish for Labor, given the provisional vote split in 2010 was more like 57-43.

So far as the next election is concerned, a more realistic estimate would be for 1500 rather than 9000 extra votes per electorate, even if an expanded pool of provisional votes were thrown into the mix, and an advantage for Labor about a tenth of that calculated by Cassidy. That would still be enough to make the difference in the occasional knife-edge contest, but the chance of it affecting multiple numbers of seats would be slim.

It may however prove a different story at future elections, once the process is given longer to do its work – always provided that such work is not brought to a stop by another Coalition government with another Senate majority, and the wherewithal to again redraw the electoral laws according to its interests.

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43 comments

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Musrum
Guest
If I was going for all-out electoral reform I’d do this: 1. Electronic voting in Parliament, which enables: 2. Proportional voting: each member’s vote is worth exactly the number of votes received in the election (but see below for the Senate). 3. 3 Member electorates: Merge 150 HoR electorates into 75, remove the current Senate. The HoR (75) sits where the Senate currently is; the Senate in the HoR (150). The HoR is all winning members of each electorate; The Senate all members remaining after the 4th last elimination. The Senate has 3 members for each electorate, with the HoR… Read more »
Greg Fisher
Guest
One thing that I think we don’t recognise is the number of people who for quite legitimate reasons have more than one residential address. There are a growing number of people that live in one city/state, but work in another- either employer funded or not. Further, there are the more traditional FIFO, DIDO workers. It is almost impossible to maintain an active residential address on the role if you have more than one address. Frequently employers (and always novated lease companies) require you have a drivers license from the state you are working in to drive company vehicles or salary… Read more »
Disasterboy
Guest

Oooh good substantial post! Been outback for a few days and will have to find my thinking cap…

Dave
Guest
Tricot @9 I dont think you can connect fighting for democracy with guns and not caring about voting. Niether is an anthem a good example. First, I like our anthem, but it puts me to sleep. It is not inspiring, uplifting or anything an anthem should be. Its a good song but not a good anthem. Second. There are other ways to fight for democracy then war. Fighting for the right to be treated as equals. THe bigger issue in my eyes is how politicians do not listen. Sure, some do, mainly backbenchers or during an election. But I have… Read more »
Marrickville Mauler
Guest

Pedant # 35: Lord howe. Sydney. Lord, how ?

pedant
Guest

Fran Barlow @ 36

“Well as there is a division for the NT … theyt seem to cope with it.”

That’s irrelevant, because the NT isn’t a State, and that’s why other external territories can be lumped in with it for federal electoral purposes.

Fran Barlow
Guest

[ strengthens the view that s29 is something which the Commonwealth is at liberty to vary ]

Well the legislation flowing from it anyway … S29 could only ve varied by following the s128 rules …

Fran Barlow
Guest

Pedant:

[There are well-known constitutional problems with including Territory voters in with the voters of a State,]

Well as there is a division for the NT … theyt seem to cope with it.

[The expression you quote from section 29 of the Constitution modifies the first sentence of the section, not the second.]

True but the fact that it is in the section at all strengthens the view that s29 is something which the Commonwealth is at liberty to vary. After all, there already is “a states’ house”.

pedant
Guest
Fran Barlow @ 29 There are well-known constitutional problems with including Territory voters in with the voters of a State, which is why the offshore territories like Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island are lumped into the Northern Territory, even though the part of the mainland with which they have the greatest affinity is WA. It basically turns on the requirement that the House be directly chosen by the people of the Commonwealth. The latter concept doesn’t include Territory voters, so they have to be represented under separate schemes. The expression you quote from section 29 of the Constitution modifies… Read more »
Boerwar
Guest
The Philippines equivalent of the electoral office has just made a ruling that candidates who die or drop out after 13 May next year can only be replaced by candidates with the same surname. This is because after that date the ballot papers cannot be reprinted. I suspect that the idea would work better here because there is a greater propensity for family-based politics than we are used to in Australia (Indeed, with Mr Newman being possibly the sole leader who has two political parents, the experiment may prove less than popular). Indeed the mayor of a city who was… Read more »
Fran Barlow
Guest

Dedalus:

[But I agree that the selection of final representatives by the executive from a master list is probably a step too far. Maybe some kind of improved pre-selection process might improve the situation.]

I’ve actually proposed at this site a system called sortition (combined with deliberative voting) for the selection of candidates.

dedalus
Guest
Pedant: On the constitutional issue, that may be so, but the main aim is to achieve some kind of proportionality with respect to the overall voting pool. So, working on the basis of 8 “super electorates” would be an improvement on the current 150 electorate system. The actual number of representatives in the house is arbitrary: most of them are backbenchers whose purpose is to serve sectional interests of their electorates. That in itself creates a major inefficiency in the system, as the interest of any single electorate may not mesh with the interest of the common whole. The extreme… Read more »
Fran Barlow
Guest
Pedant: [But you run into problems as soon as you try to do a similar thing with national vote totals (as is done in New Zealand), because (a) you have to factor in votes cast in the Territories, which is dicey;] There’s nothing in the constitution constraining that. [and (b) you are, in effect, creating a single national constituency,] Doubtful, but I suppose it could be argued. The divisions would remain the same and in theory at least no party might achieve the 3% threshhold, meaning that every division would be determined exactly as it is now. In short, the… Read more »
pedant
Guest
Fran Barlow @ 29 There is no constitutional problem with running a proportional system – list, mixed, STV or whatever – which is based on State wide vote totals, State by State. But you run into problems as soon as you try to do a similar thing with national vote totals (as is done in New Zealand), because (a) you have to factor in votes cast in the Territories, which is dicey; and (b) you are, in effect, creating a single national constituency, and section 29 of the Constitution explicitly forbids the creation of electoral divisions from parts of different… Read more »
Fran Barlow
Guest
Dedalus: [Not quite how your allocation of preferences works, but I agree with the spirit of your idea.] They’d work exactly as they do now, in seats not allocated from the quota. [ In order to maximise merit and reduce the drones, the party could choose their Parliamentary representatives after the event from their total candidate list, much as they choose their front bench.] I’m wanting to get away from the concept of parties as career brokers so I’m going to pass on that one. This reality more than any other single factor has corrupted the majors, IMO. Pedant: [Your… Read more »
pedant
Guest
Geoff Powell @ 21 – Your comment that ticket voting for the Senate “may have reduced the informal rate but it cannot be regarded as a reform” is a bit glib: literally millions more votes, and meaningful ones at that, have been counted in the last 30 years because of the reduction of the informal vote at Senate elections from ~ 9% to 2-3%. From a wider world perspective, the obsession of so many Australian commentators with the horrors of a big role for political parties in politics and elections seems very parochial. All the evidence suggests that the bulk… Read more »
Albert Ross
Guest
One reform that might be worthwhile looking at is a prohibition on the handing out and display of election materials within (say) 250 metres of a polling place. I believe (as a perpetrator of the proposed “crime” of more than 40 years standing) that the handing out of HTVs and festooning with posters the fences adjacent to polling places is a waste of both time and money (mostly taxpayers’) and increasingly an annoyance to citizens going about their lawful occasions. Such a prohibition might encourage local candidates to campaign properly prior to the election eg. attending public meetings etc I… Read more »
dedalus
Guest
Fran Barlow 24 Yes, our ideas are similar. Some sort of quota system. The main thing is to give parties/candidates a representation in the Parliament commensurate with their voter support. Not quite how your allocation of preferences works, but I agree with the spirit of your idea. My wrinkle on this has to do with how the parties choose their final members to sit in the Parliament. In order to maximise merit and reduce the drones, the party could choose their Parliamentary representatives after the event from their total candidate list, much as they choose their front bench. Thus, a… Read more »
Boerwar
Guest
There is a lively discussion in the Philippines at the amount about both ‘epal’ and premature campaigning. The official start date for Senatorial and party list candidates is 12 February and for Congressional and local posts it is 29 March 2013. But candidates are already hard at it. Under Section 80 of the Omnibus Election Act politicians may be held liable. However, a Supreme Court ruling in Penares vs. Adanar that Section 80 had been repealed by the poll automation law and that therefore there was no such thing as premature campaigning. [Source: 14/9 Article headed ‘Absurd’ by Jose Sison,… Read more »
Fran Barlow
Guest
dedalus: [I would love to see this: parties getting fully proportional representation. As an example, in the Reps, say if ALP gets 35%, Greens 13%, Coalition 43%, Independants 4%, informal 5%.] What you propose isn’t entirely different to my own singlem member POR system. 1. A threshhold of 3% is imposed for automatic party representation in the lower house. 2. Parties run candidates in as many seats as they think apt. 3. Each party with at least 3% of the national primary vote gets their pproprtion of seats (rounded down) allocated. In each case the winner on primaries is ranked… Read more »
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