New electoral laws passed under the Gillard Government may well have a not insignificant impact on election results according to an examination of Newspoll surveys. Under the legislation, people who are not currently enrolled, but are, or become eligible to vote will automatically be placed on the electoral roll.
The new laws which would see approximately 1.5 million people, mostly new voters, added to the Australian Electoral Commission roll could change election results by up to 1.5%.
While 1.5% may not actually seem like a particularly large percentage, in politics it can mean the difference between a term or two, perhaps three in power. In close contests such a margin could easily mean the difference between seizing government and languishing on the opposition benches for three years.
Under these laws, those with the most to lose are the Liberal and National Party’s. It is a long-observed trend that young people generally vote for Labor, even the Greens. So of course, Liberal Party MP’s were yesterday quite concerned about the possible effects to their vote from automatic and compulsory electoral enrolment.
But is that discontent and anger justified in terms of the way the franchise is conducted in Australia?
In Australia, whether you believe in it or not, we have compulsory voting.
Every three years those of voting age are required to vote in the national poll. Most do vote, with a percentage casting informal votes. But all in all, most people vote and do so correctly. There is also a relatively small number of people who fail to turn up to their local polling place at all and a fine is imposed on them.
So, with this compulsory voting system there should be an understanding that you are automatically enrolled to vote.
Although in conflict with my generally liberal beliefs, I believe that everyone of adult age should be required to head to polling booths on election day to vote. I believe this because I see it as the best chance of electing a government that is generally representative of the people.
But of course I am firmly in favour of a secret ballot and if you are silly enough to use your opportunity to vote just to doodle all over the ballot paper or write silly names or words next to candidates, well, then, feel free to go ahead and act like child. In fact, bugger off.
Anyway, back to the crux of the issue at hand.
While the new AEC laws are not that dramatic in terms of enfranchising all that should be voting, there is an argument that could be sensibly made about the timing of the amendment.
The new clause comes in at a time when the ALP is struggling electorally. The Labor Party have been behind in the polls for a prolonged period of time and still, despite some narrowing in the margin, look set to lose.
So of course, there is scope, in that sense, for some cynicism.
The law should have been the same way from the beginning of the commonwealth, or at the very least, if Labor were so worried about people missing out on the vote, from the start of their administration which began in late 2007. But no, full voter enrolment is apparently a newfound thing for the ALP.
Anger about the laws themselves is misguided unless the Liberal Party supports changing the electoral rules to allow for voluntary voting. It’s not “rorting” the system when the system is compulsory voting, it’s ensuring that all people of voting age will have the opportunity to vote.
Feel free, however, to be cynical about the timing. Ask yourself the following questions: Why now? Why not from the beginning of the federation? Why not from the beginning of this Labor Government?