Why Australia needs automatic voter registration.

If Australia has compulsory voting, why are over 628,000 people missing from the electoral roll?

An often- stated fact about Australia is that we have compulsory voting. Sure it’s thanks to compulsory voting that Australia boasts a voter registration of 96.3% of the eligible voting population. Compared to other countries, this figure sounds impressive, until you consider one rarely stated fact – the 628, 547 voters missing from the electoral roll.

So why are so many people missing from the voting rolls?

  • Some voters have never registered;
  • Non-voters who have fallen off the electoral roll due to homelessness or renting;
  • Some people are registered to vote at state but not federal level;
  • Many indigenous Australian’s aren’t registered to vote.

While the Australian Electoral Commission requires all eligible voters to register and vote- there is no automatic process for updating voter details. And  for this reason there is a large hole in Australia’s electoral roll. When people move house, or become homeless they often fall off the electoral roll.

Admittedly, there is some provision in the electoral act for allowing people with no fixed address to vote. But you have to ask: How many homeless people ensure they vote while homeless?

Why does Australia have compulsory voting?
Australia is one a relatively small club of nations that makes voting compulsory. Other countries with compulsory voting are: Brazil, Argentina, Luxembourg, Belgium and others.

We made voting compulsory in 1924 after the disastrously low voter turn out in the 1922 election. The vote at this election was so low that the result had to be called into question.

And although our rate of electoral enrolment and voting is much higher than many other countries, I would argue that Australia doesn’t really have compulsory voting, and that what we have is compulsory attendance at the polling booth if you’re registered to vote.
Younger voters

So let’s look at the three groups of people who, due to their circumstances often aren’t registered and so, don’t vote. First, many young people are still missing from our electoral roll and so don’t vote. While some may assume young people are apathetic, they are in fact the opposite.
There’s a large cohort of young people are agitated on issues of importance. It’s just that many from this age group don’t see their concerns reflected in the national debate. Discussion about house prices, negative gearing, and other topics generally caters to an older demographic. Further, when politicians tour electorates they often don’t talk to the concerns of young people.

And because politicians don’t speak to their concerns young people feel ignored and so don’t register to vote.  And young people prefer direct participation campaigns via social media and the internet.

But ultimately, only young people and the political parties ensure more young people are enrolled to vote. Young people would be a  potent electoral force in a way that Generation X never was because there are so many more Gen Y’s.

But also the onus should be on political parties to speak to the concerns of all Australians, not just older Australians whose life circumstances have been blessed by economic sunshine.

Indeed, many voters (of all ages) often don’t understand what a potent force they really are. Do you want to understand the importance of political engagement?  To understand this, look at the boomers. In the ‘80s the election of the Hawke Government was partly due to changing demographic trends. A driving force behind the electoral change was the then youthful boomers.

Long after the ’80s became fodder for the history books, the boomers have remained a potent electoral force. This potency can be seen from government spending patterns. Of all the age groups, people over 65 command a much higher level of government spending. By contrast, the group with the thinnest slice of government spending is Generation X (1966-1980).

Voters registered at the state level

A second, but even more obscure voting block is the voters registered at state level. These voters are eligible to vote at their state and local government elections, but not at federal elections. There are around 100,000 missing voters in this category.

Thus, for every one of these hundred of thousands of voters, they miss out on getting their say at the federal level. This is a real shame because there are so many decisions made at the national level where the ramifications reverberate for decades.

Renters who have fallen off the electoral roll

A third group who is also a largely invisible group of non-voters: renters. Renters receive little notification from landlords before being asked to move. In NSW, the regular period is 21-days. And amid the busy lifestyles, competing priorities – it’s not hard to see why they often forget to get back on the electoral roll.

Moreover, some people still return their forms in the post, so it takes time for the electoral commission to update their details. And by the time the election is announced it is only a matter of days until the rolls are closed and people are barred from updating their details.  The fastest way to register or get registered is by changing or updating your details online.

Indigenous Australian’s

Although Indigenous Australian’s have had the right to vote for many decades, they continue to have a low voter participation rate.  Figures from the 2016 Federal election suggest that as few as 58% of indigenous Australian’s vote.  Though some sources suggest this figure is overly generous and that the real number is closer to 50% voter registration for indigenous people.

To increase this and to make politicians more responsive to the needs of Indigenous people requires a mass voter recruitment drive.  The best way to do this is via a process of automatic registration. Otherwise, Australian politician’s, mining companies and other interest groups will continue to pay lip service or ride roughshod over Indigenous rights.

Homeless people who have fallen off the electoral roll

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A fourth, equally invisible group is the homeless. It’s now well publicised that Australia has a rapidly burgeoning group of homeless. The last official count showed that Australia’s homeless rate was above 100,000.

Many of these unregistered voters are older women who are homeless. They are not unregistered voters because they failed to enrol, but because they fell off the roll.

This group is a growing and pronounced group. Some women have become homeless due to domestic violence.  Many of these women had to give up their working lives to plug gaping holes in government care arrangements. They look after elderly parents, disability carers and become teachers of special needs students. And once many of these women hit their 50s they are thrown on the Newstart scrap heap and become homeless.

Voter ID may sound good, but why it’s really a bad idea

Another group of voters who don’t vote are voters without ID. Requirements for voter ID are well-known to disenfranchise low-income voters.  But you may be thinking to yourself, but hang on, shouldn’t we check identification documents?

Both Queensland and NSW have made moves to introduce voter ID.  In Queensland voter ID has been discontinued. And in NSW, the Electoral Commission of NSW’s website advises that compulsory ID isn’t necessary, but suggests that it’s helpful to establish identity.

Indeed, while requiring that voter ID be provided to establish identity and allow a polling official to distinguish between two people with similar names, using it as a means to prevent people from voting stinks of rank opportunism.

Such a measure would only be suitable if there was compelling evidence that a criminal syndicate was organising fake voters to turn up to polling booths. But there is simply no evidence of this.

It is arguable that the framers of the electoral Acts understood voter ID to be a furphy. This is why they mandated fines because the presence of a financial stick incentivises many a dissatisfied, apathetic voter into voting.

Further, those voters unable to vote on election day are able to cast an absentee ballot.  Moreover, voters unable to attend on polling day are free to vote at pre-poll. And lastly, those voters who vote multiple times (yes it does happen!) risk prosecution.

Hence, voter ID is simply not necessary as a means of establishing identity. As Antony Green, the ABC’s well-known election analyst said at a hearing.“I worry about voter ID laws, partly because I think that it is a solution looking for a problem.”

Should it be called compulsory voting when there are so many people missing from the electoral roll?

The success of our representative democracy on the people electing politicians that represent their interests.  If you aren’t registered to vote and if you don’t vote – you can expect politicians to ignore you.

Similarly, if you vote for politicians who don’t represent your interests, you can also expect to be ignored.  So typically politicians in this latter category play voters for fools, by finger pointing at their opponents to keep supporters on side – while completely ignoring their needs. While many voters say they detest these tactics – some voters are readily swayed.

In response, cynics may say: Well we all know politicians are out for themselves – don’t we?  What do you expect? While this may be true of some politicians, the essence of democracy rests on the foundations of representative democracy that is, politicians exist to shape the policy landscape to further the interests of the electors.  If not, it’s time for voters to start looking for alternatives.

The case for automatic voter registration

But while there are compelling reasons for adding poorly represented people to the electoral roll, the fact is when it comes to getting registered; sometimes life gets in the way. Amidst all the competing deadlines, the stresses and other life drama’s – the fact is, unless people rank registering to vote as a priority, or can make it a priority, they will fall off the roll.

That’s why we need a system of automatic updating.  Because to be a proper representative democracy you not only need a large percentage of Australian’s registered, you also must ensure poorly represented groups are also enrolled to vote.

While ever some voters (say younger voters) continue to be poorly represented relative to their older counterparts, for example, it is far less likely that they will be heard.

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