2016 Electoral Commission: Not as bad as the Bureau of Statistics

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By The Hon Michael Danby MP

The 2016 Melbourne Ports election results have – at long last – been finalised, with Melissa Chan, the AEC Deputy Returning Officer confirming that as Labor candidate, I had won the seat for the seventh time.

Long ago the AEC co-located their Melbourne Ports office in the city at Casselden Place. Many constituents will know the building at the top of Lonsdale St where federal immigration officers are located.

There is a ceremony where the local Electoral Commission announces the official result (the “Declaration of the Poll”) which was a good opportunity to reflect on some of the problems, both local and national, that arose from the 2016 election.

I explained that it was as a result of the 2013 Senate fiasco in Western Australia that there were long lines on election day and long delays in counting of the ballots in some seats. These delays were due to the AEC’s determination not to repeat the disaster of 2013 where West-Australians were forced back to the polls because of the disappearance of some 1500 ballot papers.

The largely autonomous officials at the AEC in WA should’ve been blamed for the loss of those ballots, but unfortunately it led to the resignation of one of Canberra’s finest public servants, former AEC Chief Ed Killesteyn.

Of course none of the officious, casual AEC workers that ran the early voting centre (pre-polling) so badly were present and the hopeless parking at the early voting centre in Argyle St seems of no account to them.

More seriously, nearly a decade ago, I led the Labor charge on the federal parliament’s electoral matters committee by highlighting that it was falling enrolments – not a tiny number of bogus enrolees – that were leading to a ‘democratic deficit’. At that stage more than 1.5 million eligible Australians were unenrolled.

In 2007 when the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) was deliberating, it became clear that only 20% of Australian electors were confirming (by snail mail) their change of address. It was a requirement then to confirm updated enrolment for those that moved houses. Of course the Liberals were quite happy to tolerate this, as the unenrolled were more likely to be Labor voters.

Labor legislated and I helped negotiate the passage of legislation in the Senate, which allowed the AEC to automatically update voters’ enrolments based on a correlation of approved databases such as the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) and other organisations such as utility providers.

It is satisfying that the AEC’s use of correlated databases such as the TAC and utility companies means that Australians’ enrolment details were being automatically updated by the AEC and the ‘democratic deficit’ was thus being addressed.

However, the combination of a long winter campaign and an election in the middle of the winter school holidays resulted in the lowest voter turnout since compulsory voting began in 1925.

Federal politics reporter Nicole Hasham writes that “More than 1.4 million Australians last month failed to cast a vote for the House of Representatives in what ultimately became a cliff-hanger election. This figure represents more than 9 per cent of 15.7 million eligible voters” and “an AEC spokesman said it made a concerted effort before the 2016 election to boost enrolment figures, including directly enrolling people based on information from other government agencies such as Centrelink.”

95 per cent of eligible voters were on the electoral roll, which equates to a 92 per cent improvement on figures from 2013; though ABC election analyst Antony Green said “you end up enrolling people who tried to avoid voting for years” which may have contributed to the lower voter turnout.

Over the long-term I would propose the automatic enrolment of 18 year olds, 50% of whom were not enrolled before the cut-off-date for 2016 elections and ultimately, the more voters see of the Turnbull Government, the more eager they will be to cast a vote against them at the next election.

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