After each federal election the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) undertakes an inquiry into the election. The Committee has already released two interim reports following the 2013 federal election:
The Final Report of the inquiry, released on 15 April 2015, is far more wide-ranging.
The report comments extensively on the Australian Electoral Commission’s (AEC) performance at the 2013 federal election and since. The recommendations include structural changes to the AEC, increased oversight by the JSCEM, increased training and documentation of training of polling officials, and increased consultation with parties and candidates. Some of these recommendations will require legislative change, however many will be able to be undertaken by the AEC now. These changes generally will not be noticed by the public.
There are a number of recommendations that will profoundly affect Australia’s electoral system, and will be noticed by everyone who votes.
The Committee recommended winding back the AEC’s Federal Direct Enrolment and Direct Update system as an integrity measure. The recommended changes would remove the ability for the AEC to update an elector’s enrolment without the elector’s active confirmation. The Committee noted that requiring confirmations for direct enrolments would likely increase the number of electors who had enrolments at different addresses on federal and state rolls, as several states continue to run their own direct enrolment programs.
In what the Member for Fairfax has hailed as a success, the Committee recommended the AEC supply pens in polling places. The Committee noted that pencils did not lead to ballot paper tampering, and that there was no evidence of any pencil marks being tampered with, but that it saw no reason for the continued exclusive use of pencils. While there has never been any requirement that ballot papers be marked with a pencil, the legislation currently requires pencils be provided in each polling booth.
In its most ambitious recommendation, the Committee recommended that federal elections adopt the same voter identification scheme as was used in the 2015 Queensland state election (which is reportedly set to be repealed by the newly elected Queensland Labor government). This would require voters to provide a prescribed form of identification at the time of voting, such as a driver’s license, a notice from a utility provider, or a voter information letter from the electoral commission, or be required to complete a declaration vote.
The committee noted that there appeared to be no significant problems identified in the use of voter ID in the Queensland election, however a recent analysis conducted for the NSW Electoral Commission found that no evidence of widespread electoral fraud in Australia that might be prevented by voter ID.
The JCSEM has previously looked into voter identification. In its 2001 Inquiry into the integrity of the electoral roll it concluded that ‘the introduction of voter identification is not warranted as a measure to deter fraud’. The Parliamentary Library has previously published a report examining the issues involved in voter identification schemes.
The Committee acknowledged that implementing most of its recommendations will involve substantial costs, but did not attempt to enumerate them.
The Committee avoided recommendations relating to some of the more contentious issues in electoral administration, such as funding of parties and disclosure of donations (with the exception of Senator Rhiannon’s dissenting report) and the increase in the rate of early voting.
The Labor and Greens members of the Committee issued a dissenting report arguing against the recommendations to scrap direct enrolment and to require voter identification. They note that if the drop in turnout seen in the 2015 Queensland state election was due to voter ID, and was replicated federally, 165,000 Australians could be excluded from voting.
The government has not publically commented on the May 2014 Interim report recommendations to change the Senate electoral system. This may change now that the final report has been released. It seems likely that, should the government attempt to legislate the substantial changes recommended in the final report, it may face resistance in the parliament. However few would argue that having a robust public discussion about the nature of Australia’s democracy is a bad thing.