Enabling the franchise

Dr Nicholas Horne and Dr Mark Rodrigues,
Politics and Public Administration Section

Electoral administration was a key area for legislative amendment during the previous parliament. Proposals to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 arose from reports of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and Government green papers on electoral finance reform and the electoral system.

Major issues examined in those reports included the increasing costs of political campaigning and fundraising pressures, the extent to which the the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 effectively facilitates participation in elections, and the potential to harness new technologies in administrative processes. It was recognised that the electoral system must adapt to these ongoing challenges in order to uphold democratic values of fairness, transparency and integrity.

Recent voter behaviour provides an indication of the scale of those issues. At the time of the 2007 federal election, more than 1.1 million people who were eligible, did not enrol to vote, over 700 000 enrolled people did not vote, and over 500 000 informal votes were cast. In sum, more than 2.3 million Australians did not fully participate in the election despite being entitled to do so. The methods of voting are also changing. For example, the proportion of postal and pre-poll declaration voting has gradually increased over a number of elections.

Areas amended during the previous parliament include:

  • modernising aspects of electoral administration such as publishing forms and information about polling places, evidence of identity for enrolment and reducing the age of provisional enrolment from 17 to 16 years
  • expanding the authorisation requirements for how-to-vote cards and broadening the definition of misleading or deceptive publication to include the telephone and the internet
  • enabling pre-poll votes cast in an elector’s ‘home’ division to be cast and counted on polling day as ordinary votes
  • restricting the number of candidates that can be endorsed by a political party in each division, and
  • enabling electronic voting for sight-impaired electors.

Likely areas of contention in the new parliament include the close of rolls period, the evidence of identity requirements for provisional voters, and election finance reform.

Close of rolls and evidence of identity requirements for provisional voters

Under amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 introduced in 2006 the electoral rolls close either on the date federal election writs are issued or on the third day after issue depending on the type of enrolment.

Two elements of the Government’s 2010 legislative reform package were:

  • setting the seventh day after the issue of federal election writs as the date for the close of the electoral rolls, and
  • repealing evidence of identity requirements for provisional electors and providing for a signature checking procedure.

The Bills containing these measures did not pass the Senate and lapsed with the conclusion of the 42nd Parliament in July 2010.

In July 2010 a challenge to the 2006 amendments relating to the close of rolls was mounted in the High Court of Australia. On 6 August 2010 the Court declared the amendments to be invalid.

After the Court’s declaration the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) moved to facilitate the enrolment of those otherwise excluded by virtue of the amendments. Initially the AEC estimated that around 100 000 extra voters would be eligible to vote in the 2010 election. Closer to the election the AEC indicated that an extra 57 732 voters had been enrolled and that a further 40 408 voters had their enrolment details updated.

It remains to be seen whether the Government revisits its legislative programme in relation to roll closure and evidence of identity in the 43rd Parliament. The main issues in contention have been the integrity of the electoral roll and voting system, the potential for electoral fraud and the possible disenfranchisement of voters.

Election finance reform

The Labor Party has signed agreements with the Australian Greens and two of the non-aligned independents (Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott) committing the signatories to legislation that will:

  • lower the donation disclosure threshold from $11 500 to $1000
  • prevent donation-splitting
  • ban foreign donations and anonymous donations over $50
  • increase the frequency of disclosure, and
  • link electoral funding to campaign expenditure.

A number of these measures were introduced by the Government in 2008 and 2009 in legislation that did not pass the Senate.

The agreements also commit the signatories to establish a parliamentary committee inquiry into further election finance reform options in 2010–11. The agreement with the Greens further notes that the Greens’ preference is for full public funding of elections.

The Prime Minister has also signed a further agreement with another non-aligned independent, Andrew Wilkie. This agreement recognises that work is underway on the reform of ‘Funding of political parties and election campaigns’ and commits the signatories to collaborate on this, but does not specify further actions.

Library publications and key documents

Australian Labor Party and the Independent Members Oakeshott and Windsor, Agreement, 7 September 2010, http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22library%2Fjrnart%2F218795%22

Australian Labor Party and the Australian Greens, Agreement, 1 September 2010, http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22library%2Fjrnart%2F218794%22

High Court of Australia, Rowe & Anor v Electoral Commissioner & Anor, media release, 6 August 2010, http://www.highcourt.gov.au/media/rowe.pdf

N Horne, Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Close of Rolls and Other Measures) Bill (No. 2) 2010, Bills digest, no. 184, 2009–10, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2010, http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/bd/2009-10/10bd184.pdf