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Vote early, vote often? Electoral commissioner wants voter ID

Integrity of the nation’s voting system has Australian Electoral Commission boss Tom Rogers “disturbed and uncomfortable”, saying remedies need to be considered including proof of identity checks at polling booths.

An AEC crackdown on multiple marks identified 7743 cases of “apparent multiple voting”, including cases where the elector admitted to the crime, but due to difficulty obtaining corroborative evidence the Australian Federal Police has not referred a single case for prosecution.

The AFP and academic reviews have noted that, in the past, multiple voting has not impacted the outcome of an election in Australia. Rogers warned in Senate Estimates last night that such complacency was no guarantee to the integrity of future elections:

“This receives a lot of coverage, and people are interested in it. The previous focus on numbers is largely irrelevant. It is actually about integrity, and perception of integrity, that’s critical.

“For me even one multiple vote is actually too many. We have to look at this process, and in my view … I think we need to take steps to remediate this situation.”

Tom Rogers
Tom Rogers

The AEC referred more cases of apparent multiple voting at the 2013 federal election to the AFP than ever before. Rogers wants to act:

“From my perspective the criticism that the electoral system receives about the issue of multiple voting is serious, needs to be remediated, and when this is discussed at the joint standing committee, I intend to say that it’s at least a measure that should be examined. Because from my perspective, I’m the commissioner and I’m disturbed by these figures.”

AFP rates multiple voting as “low value” cases and has rejected most referrals for investigation on that basis according to its 2011 submission to the joint standing committee on electoral matters.

Ramzi Jabbour, then acting deputy commissioner for AFP operations, wrote to the committee that it was impossible to prove the time of the offence due to the lack of CCTV or time stamps on votes, and even proving identity was a significant issue:

“Investigations into multiple voting offences are notoriously unsuccessful unless the alleged offender makes full and frank admissions to the offence.”

The Mandarin sought the AFP’s current position on these matters and was told priority for further consideration was given cases of a high number of multiple votes by an individual, or previous records by that individual at prior elections. Reasons precluding prosecution include reasonable excuses, genuine confusion by the voter due to age, disability or English as a second language. An inability to establish deliberate intent or if the suspect denied outright multiple voting or declined to participate in a taped record of interview would also derail any prosecution.

The joint standing committee will again take up the issue next week after Special Minister of State Michael Rolandson indicated on Tuesday he has referred terms for an inquiry.

Eyes will be on the recent Queensland state election where “evidence of identity” was required for the first time in Australia’s electoral history. Indications are that most electors used a “Voter Information Letter” issued by the Queensland Electoral Commission as their identity document. This letter allows people to vote without common forms of identity documents, but depends on accurate mailing addresses on the roll.

Rogers said it appeared the process in Queensland ran “very smoothly” and is a growing trend in English-speaking democracies.

However, international jurisdictions that have implemented voter ID requirements have in some cases attracted criticism of being a cover for voter disenfranchisement, particularly of ethnic minorities. All nine of Australia’s electoral commissions have a convention that no person is turned away, such as in cases where an enrolled name has already been marked or the elector’s name cannot be found. A declaration ballot is offered instead, which carries a cost implication, Rogers indicated:

“Every voter gets to cast a vote. Any system we design in the future would have to have that as a part, and there’s a way of doing that and ensuring the integrity of the process.

Polling booths going digital

Online voting is not on the table, however, electronic certified lists have created some excitement among electoral commissions and politicians.

The federal Griffith by-election last year was the first to use electronic lists instead of paper lists. Rogers says the incidents of multiple marks “plummeted” as a result of the technology as it reduces polling errors. To go national might cost in the order of $60 million, he said.

The AEC has established an Electoral Integrity Unit, as part of its reform agenda following the lost ballots in the 2013 WA Senate election, which will initially focus on the enrolment process and integrity. To date, the EIU has worked on analysis of enrolment fraud and issues caused by parallel enrolment processes in states and territories.

Different processes has resulted in a high divergence in the number of electors on the state and Commonwealth rolls. The New South Wales roll has 230,345 electors that do not appear on the Commonwealth roll; Victoria has 195,391 that are also absent federally. Western Australia has 93,109 fewer electors than the AEC because it does not recognise direct enrolments made through the AEC. Rogers told estimates that collaboration with the state and territory commission through the Electoral Council of Australia and New Zealand has not been able to resolve the issue, due to legislative and practice variations:

“I’ve made a number of decisions based on my desire to make sure the Commonwealth roll is of high integrity and I’ve got confidence in that roll, and I’m deliberately not criticising my colleagues in other states, but the largest cause of divergence is in fact the parallel running of direct enrolment programs with the Commonwealth, particularly in NSW and Victoria …

“From my perspective, the divergence is not an issue for the Commonwealth. I’ve made a number of decisions about the datasets that we’re using and the inclusions that we’re putting on that roll. I’m comfortable with the decisions that I’ve made for the integrity of the Commonwealth roll is in place.”

The third tranche of the Australian National Audit Office investigation of AEC’s delivery of elections will focus specifically on the roll.

UPDATE: This story was updated with additional information provided by the AFP after publication.

More at The Mandarin: The fall and rise of AEC: how Tom Rogers got out the vote

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.