Rattle the ghosts of polls past
About 1.5 million non-voters are being chased to join the electoral roll and they may have a significant impact on the next election. Photo: Chris Hopkins
The 2013 pre-election campaign is really starting; for instance, in stories about prospective Senate candidates such as Simon Sheikh and Julian Assange. But the biggest story so far is the new system of direct enrolment introduced recently by the federal government. All these stories potentially have a link to the youth vote, as has publicity about how the parties seek out young people.
Citizens need to be on the electoral roll to be able to cast a vote. At the moment, eligible citizens must take the initiative to place themselves on that roll. The Australian Electoral Commission will chase you in various ways but the responsibility remains with you.
Australians often assume that our system of compulsory voting means that nearly everyone votes. This is actually far from the truth as the Australian National University's Professor Ian McAllister has outlined recently. Not only do more than 5 per cent of enrolled voters fail to vote, but 10 per cent of the whole electorate (about 1.5 million people) are not even enrolled to vote.
Of these, 900,000 have never been on the roll and so have never voted. 600,000 have been on the roll at some stage but are not currently. Among young people under 30, the percentage is much higher than 10 per cent. But, as another political scientist and blogger (Mumble), Dr Peter Brent, points out, young people are still a minority of the ''missing'' 1.5 million.
Direct enrolment is an attempt to address non-enrolment. It has also been introduced for NSW and Victorian elections and is the practice in many other countries. By using data already available to the government, such as vehicle registration or higher education enrolment information, the electoral commission can put people on the roll without their initiative or can change their enrolment details, such as their address when they have moved.
The commission then informs you of this and you then have a responsibility to ''vote'' as a consequence. (Strictly speaking your responsibility is to attend a polling booth, not to actually vote, although most people don't see it that way, hence the common use of the term ''compulsory voting''.)
There are three ways to interpret direct enrolment. The first is positive, concluding that the more people who vote the better it is in the spirit of compulsory voting. Non-voting is seen to be a deficit as far as democracy is concerned. Therefore, without trying to tackle the deeper problem of why people don't enroll, this is a direct-action method of addressing enrolment. Australian political scientists, such as me, generally follow this line of thinking. So, too, do electoral commissions.
The second is negative and is based on the idea that you never trust the government in power to alter the electoral system, even when it has the support of an independent electoral commission. In this line of thinking, governments will always try to advantage themselves when they introduce changes, though not in the same blatant way that the ''gerrymandering'' of electorates does.
So, without troubling themselves as to whether the change is a good idea in theory, oppositions will oppose it. In this vein, the manager of opposition business in the House of Representatives, Christopher Pyne, has declared that the new system is a government rort to get more votes. Shadow special minister of state Bronwyn Bishop has announced that, if it wins the next election, the Coalition will repeal the new law because it may compromise the accuracy of the electoral roll.
Pyne's point assumes that having these extra voters enrolled will advantage Labor and the Greens. Here there seems to be some disagreement among political scientists, though there is no doubt that younger voters favour Labor and the Greens disproportionately (but note Brent's point that there will be more new old voters than new young voters).
McAllister calculates, using Newspoll surveys, that the consequence of the new voters would reduce the Coalition's first preference vote 1.5 per cent, increase the Labor vote 0.1 per cent and increase the Greens vote 0.6 per cent. He concludes, in The Australian, that, while these changes are small, they ''could easily affect the outcome in a tightly held seat'' and ''about a half-dozen seats could be determined by these changes''. Clearly, if this was the case, the opposition should be concerned.
But Brent disagrees and reckons that ''direct enrolment will have a negligible effect, if any, on the next election result''. According to his thinking, the mistake comes in over-emphasising the young voter component and in overestimating the number of non-enrolled voters that direct enrolment will catch. The commission reckons it will catch only a third and that it will happen over two or three elections, not all at once. Brent reckons the new system will lead to an extra 200,000 voters by next year's election.
The third possible interpretation is more philosophical. It is more like the argument for voluntary rather than compulsory voting. It stresses the responsibility of the individual rather than the so-called nanny state in increasing enrolment. Bishop has said: ''The obligation is on voters to update their details on the roll and the AEC's obligation is to maintain the integrity of the roll.''
I think the government is correct. Several hundred thousand citizens turn up to vote at any federal election but are refused because they are not on the roll. Their vote should be counted if possible because it is not as if they are uninterested. But the philosophical objections are serious ones. It would be nice if more people got off their backsides and took the initiative to enroll themselves, just as it would be nice if politicians made it more attractive to do so by improving their performances.
>> John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University. John.Warhurst@anu.edu.au