Last Saturday’s by-election in Stafford was the first test of the Newman government’s recently introduced voter Id laws. To my knowledge, it was the first time in Australia that voters have been required to present personal identification when turning up to vote.
As I wrote in a previous post, and as Chris Berg from the IPA also suggested, voter Id is an answer trying to find a problem.
There is nothing apart from apocryphal evidence to suggest ‘personation’ is a problem at Australian elections. There is a tiny but measurable incidence of multiple voting, but the incidence is not enough to change election results. Even then, voter Id laws cannot stop voters voting at multiple polling places.
Voter Id as implemented at the Stafford will not make Australian elections more secure.
But if it makes voters think elections are more secure, then it may play a part in fixing the real problem with Australian elections.
That problem is trust in the electoral process.
The last year has seen a growth in public doubts about the electoral process. In my view it has three causes.
The most public cause was the bungling of the administration of last year’s federal elections by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). The loss of ballot papers last September and consequent re-run of the WA senate election cost the AEC dearly in trust, from both the public and more importantly from federal politicians.
The second cause has been the failure of successive federal governments and parliaments to be pro-active in dealing with evident problems developing with party registration and Senate preferences. Problems with electoral law are too often blamed on the AEC when it is the AEC’s job to comply with the parliament’s law, not write the law itself.
The third cause, compounded by the first two, has been the swingeing attacks on the AEC by Clive Palmer, who has strung together every available conspiracy theory about the conduct of Australian elections and constructed a parallel universe where the entire electoral process in Australia is corrupt. So wild have some of Palmer’s claims been that the new government has been forced to defend the AEC when its more natural instinct would have been to apply its own rough wooing to the AEC.
If voter Id laws help to restore faith in the electoral process, then the potential inconvenience and extra cost may be worthwhile bearing.
The regulations implementing the new Queensland laws make it very easy for voters to comply. I provide a fuller lists here, but in brief a drivers licence, proof of age photo id, pension card, credit card, letter from the ECQ or range of other documents are valid.
The voter Id laws only apply to forms of voting that do not already require a written declaration by the voter. It is not required for postal votes, hospital votes and absent votes. It is required by in-person voters, that is pre-poll and on the day voting within an electorate.
The Stafford results reveal that 21,402 voters cast normal ballots either on the day or by pre-poll voting. All of these voters must have presented one of the acceptable forms of Id.
A total of 199 votes were counted as ‘Uncertain Identity’ votes, that is they were declaration votes filled in by voters who were unable to present an acceptable form of Id.
Assuming none of these declaration votes were rejected, that corresponds to just 0.9% of voters turning up to vote without acceptable identity.
Before the above is viewed as my saying Stafford proves that voter Id works, let me put a few reservations on the process.
First, we need the Electoral Commission Queensland to issue a report card on how the voter Id laws worked. The Uncertain Identity votes were included in the count on Sunday, which means that the only check made was that the name and address on the envelope matched the electoral roll. Were any of these declaration votes rejected and why? (A rejected declaration vote is not opened so the ballot paper never appears in the results.)
Were there any voters who just turned away on Saturday after having their Id questioned, rather than moving to cast a declaration vote? If there is too much publicity about the need for voters to present Id, will it discourage voters from bothering to turn-up? If everyone wihtout Id is going to be granted a declaration vote, why make it sound like the voter Id process is onerous?
Was there any evidence of increased queuing in polling places? Come the state election all polling places will be conducting absent voting as well, which will increase the number of people filling in declaration votes.
In Estimates Committees last week, Labor MP for Rockhampton Bill Byrne raised the following – “I have heard something indirectly from people working in the pre-poll. There is some evidence that has been presented to me—admittedly I was not present, but people whom I trust were—suggesting that people, once they had these matters made aware to them, displayed an emotional reaction and left. Obviously that did not happen in front of your officers.”
The challenging of voters by party workers is common place in other countries. In America it has often been used as a method of disenfranchising classes of voters, more specifically the challenging of Afro-Americans in a queue over their right to vote.
The documents that the ECQ lists as forms of Id are broad, but I would imagine that it might present problems in remote polling, where voters are less likely to have Id and less likely to be connected to public utilities.
Another point to make about Queensland elections is that voters are able to vote more quickly and easily than anywhere else in Australia. Preferences are optional and there is no upper house.
Quick voter turnaround through the voting partitions may help limit queuing. If voter Id laws were to apply at a Federal election, would the longer time needed to number all boxes and deal with the Senate ballot paper make queuing worse?
Hopefully the ECQ will provide a proper report on how the new laws worked. The Stafford by-election provided a useful test of the new laws ahead of next year’s election, so a well managed electoral commission would have measured the impact of the new laws.
Certainly if the laws work well in Queensland, other jurisdictions may be interested in going down the same path.
What needs to be watched is the regulations implementing these laws. As used on Saturday, the laws are a soft-touch implementation of voter Id. With the exception of the homeless, few voters would have been denied the chance to vote.
But a toughening of the regulations requiring greater proof of identity would change the profile of voters. If voter Id laws do become more common, then it is important to make sure they are not being implemented as a partisan fiddle by the government of the day.