Federal legislation proposing to change voter identification laws has come under fire from researchers and Labor while the government argues the new safeguards are needed.
When questioned about the laws this week, the Australian Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers tread carefully while expressing a wish for changes not to allow voters to be turned away.
A bill introduced into parliament on Thursday would have voters show identification on polling day, rather than simply have their name and address checked off on arrival.
But some researchers are arguing the move could “disenfranchise” voters, particularly young people and Indigenous Australians, as well as voters with no fixed address, creating a barrier that could deter them from casting a ballot.
The laws would require people without identification to have someone vouch for them, or submit a “declaration vote” that electoral officers would verify.
Senate leader Simon Birmingham said recommendations had come from the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Matters following the past three elections proposing the change.
“In this day and age, conspiracy theories run ever more rampant on the internet about electoral systems. And this is a measure that can increase people’s confidence in the integrity of the electoral system,” he said.
“When [the laws] are applied in the right way, they in no way dampen participation.”
Bill Browne, a senior researcher at the Australia Institute, said there was no evidence that voter fraud was a threat to Australian election integrity.
“On the other hand, disengagement from the political process and the disenfranchisement of vulnerable people are major problems,” Browne said in a statement.
“The government simply cannot guarantee that every polling official in every polling station will understand these rules, and enforce them consistently and fairly for every voter.”
Commissioner Rogers told Senate estimates this week that while voter fraud had been “vanishingly small” he understood there was a “perception issue” that some believed was worth dealing with.
“The commission really is aware of all sides of the argument. We don’t want to be caught up in what’s effectively a political discussion,” Rogers told a hearing on Wednesday.
He said an effective measure of any legislation would be that “no voter is turned away”.
Rogers said AEC research showed most people who cast more than one vote were confused about the process, and were usually either older Australians or people using English as a second language.
Among 15 million voters, there were about 2000 cases of multiple marks against votes at the last election, and only about 24 were investigated by police with no charges resulting, Rogers said.
He said the AEC had contributed to a Joint Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Matters submission highlighting that securing a conviction in cases of voter fraud was difficult because evidentiary requirements were “almost impossible to meet”.
“I think we are lucky in Australia in that the evidence of multiple voting to date has been … vanishingly small,” Rogers said.
The legislation, backed by One Nation’s Pauline Hanson, faced a backlash from Labor on Thursday with opposition leader Anthony Albanese labelling it a “desperate attempt to undermine our strong democracy”.