Given that Australian voters will do their democratic duty by heading to the polls this Saturday, now seems a perfect time to pause and ask: what does the 2013 federal election tell us about the health of Australian democracy? With politicians increasingly prone to meddle with laws surrounding the electoral roll and the power of money in our political campaigns, the pulse of Australia’s democracy may not be as strong as we had once thought.
At the beginning of the 20th century there was no doubt about Australia’s democratic leadership. In 1903, through a massive nation-wide effort, Australia enrolled more of its population to vote in the forthcoming election than any country had done before. Commonwealth electoral officials estimated that 96% of the adult population, including both women and men, were now on the roll. The cause was further advanced in 1911 when enrolment was made compulsory, largely at the urging of the Chief Electoral Officer. Australia pioneered the creation of professional electoral administrators with a professional interest in the achievement of an electoral roll that was comprehensive as well as accurate. How does Australia compare in 2013?
Since the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) ceased door-knocking to register voters (in 1999) we have experienced a “shrinking roll”. At its worst, up to 1.5 million eligible voters were missing from the roll. Reliance on data matching meant the AEC had become very good at removing voters who were no longer at their registered address, but not nearly as good at getting them back onto the roll. There were anachronistic requirements for voters to sign and return paper enrolment forms.
Unlike other democracies, the AEC could not use the data at its disposal simply to enrol eligible voters at the right address. This situation was exacerbated by the amendment of the Electoral Act in 2006 to close the rolls on the day the writs were issued. Many Australians were only prompted to enrol or re-enrol by the announcement of an election and were now disenfranchised. We had fallen well behind other democracies who allowed enrolment up to the day of the election (Canada) or the day before (New Zealand).
Pressure mounted to repair this democratic deficit. One of the top demands of Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit in 2008 – and of the Youth Summit that preceded it – was for direct enrolment. But it is difficult to gain bipartisan agreement for any action concerning the roll. Conservative parties tend to argue that making it easier to get onto the roll opens up the possibility of electoral fraud. However, making it more difficult has a disproportionate effect on young people and disadvantaged sections of the community.
Online activist group GetUp! took matters into its own hands with two successful High Court actions in 2010. One overturned the early close of the roll, with a majority finding this was an unreasonable restriction of the universal franchise. The other decision upheld the validity of electronic signatures and hence allowed online enrolment.
Of even greater long-term significance, the Commonwealth Electoral Act was finally amended in 2012 to allow the Electoral Commissioner to update details or directly enrol new voters after informing them of his intent.
The combination of direct enrolment, restoration of the week to enrol after the issuing of writs and the possibility of enrolling online contributed to record enrolment for the 2013 election. In the week after election was called, over 162,000 people were added to the roll and nearly 490,000 updated their enrolment. Over 85% of these enrolments and updates were done online. The shrinking roll was finally being reversed, although the percentage of eligible voters enrolled had still not returned to the 1903 level.
Full Article: Election 2013 Essays: The state of Australian democracy.