Policy change happens when events meet ideas.
And so it is with voter ID laws – the idea that we ought to be required to show formal identification when we vote on election day.
Currently our electoral system is based on trust. Voting simply requires a voter to state their name and have it crossed off a list.
It’s incredibly insecure. Charmingly so. Alongside the sausage sizzle, the old-fashioned electoral procedure is no small part of what creates the romanticism of Australian democracy.
On Thursday, during Senate estimates, the Australian Electoral Commission said it was referring 8000 cases of multiple voting in 2013 to the Australian Federal Police. (Voting more than once, in case you didn’t know, is illegal.)
This is a lot. After the 2010 election, only 19 cases were referred to the AFP.
After the loss of 1400 ballots in Western Australia, the reputation of the AEC – and, by implication, the integrity of the electoral system itself – is understandably shaky. There is a strong political desire to do something about the AEC. Something. Anything.
Hence the political push for voter ID laws, which are supposed to prevent multiple voting. Last month, Queensland introduced its own voter identification laws as part of its electoral reform package.
But voter ID is a non-solution to a non-problem.
Let’s start with the non-problem.
Clive Palmer reckons Australians can “vote 10, 20, 30 times if you like”. A voter could visit more than one poll booth and vote under their own name multiple times. Or they could vote multiple times by impersonating other voters, at the same or different booths.
In each case, they would be abusing the trust system. (A person could also potentially enrol multiple times. But enrolment fraud is much harder to pull off.)
Yet just because a law is occasionally broken doesn’t mean it is an urgent problem.
We know when multiple voting happens because once the election is over, the AEC compares the booths’ lists to see if some names are crossed out more than once.
The large number of multiple voters referred to the AFP this year reflects the fact that the AEC is taking the phenomenon more seriously – for political reasons – not that multiple voting is getting more common.
Sure, 8000 cases sounds like a big number. But 10,000 further multiple votes are recorded simply because of human error by booth workers.
In other words, we’re talking well within the election’s margin of error here.
The vast majority of multiple voting instances – usually above 80 per cent – are attributed to confused elderly voters, who often speak English as a second language or not at all. (This 2009 AEC paper details the findings up until the 2007 election. From the evidence given by the AEC to estimates last week that proportion is unlikely to have changed.) Only a tiny fraction of multiple voters have admitted that they were “trying out the system”. Maybe a few hundred in 2013, spread across 14 million electors.
Others say they were drunk. Okay.
One reason the AFP prosecutes so few multiple voters is because there are so few of them. Another reason is that the problem is just not consequential enough to spend scarce resources on.
It is certainly possible to imagine a scenario where multiple voting could strategically alter election results; to swing tight races and thus steal power. That seems to be the underlying concern about multiple voting.
But the concern is misplaced. In a detailed study for the New South Wales Parliament earlier this year, the University of Sydney’s Rodney Smith concluded that “stealing elections is hard … large-scale multiple voting is highly unlikely to emerge as a problem”. Our trust system might facilitate multiple voting, but such behaviour is easy to detect after the fact. Questionable election results can be disputed.
As Smith pointed out, there is no evidence to suggest that multiple voting is directed towards marginal seats, which is what we’d see if one party was trying to game the electoral system.
But Parliament is about finding solutions to problems, not figuring out whether those problems exist.
So, with the AEC’s reputation at a low ebb, there is a push for a voter ID requirement to eliminate multiple voting. The push is coming mostly from the Coalition.
Voter ID would tackle only one of the ways to multiple vote – the impersonation of other voters. It wouldn’t do anything to stop people visiting different booths under their own name. (Unless of course the lists were somehow digitally tied together and updated in real time. This would be incredibly complex, and it’s not on the table.)
Not every change to an electoral system is necessarily self-interested and anti-democratic. But that’s not a bad rule of thumb.
In the United States, voter ID requirements are used to suppress the vote of traditional Democrat constituencies: the young, poor, and minorities. Those groups are less likely to have and carry appropriate identification.
But voting is voluntary in the US. Australia’s compulsory system means voter ID would create a different dynamic. Those voters who find producing identity documents too troublesome and fail to vote will be fined for not doing so. This punishment to vote may (partly) counterbalance the disincentive of having to show identification.
The Queensland reforms allow voters to show a reasonably broad range of identity documents – not just photo ID. If none are on hand, voters would be able to sign declarations of their identity.
But you can imagine how such new rules will gum up the works on election day. Confused voters sorting through identity papers. Booth workers trying to guide non-English speaking elderly through declaration statements.
What an enormous amount of hassle and complexity to fix a non-problem. Voter ID is yet another bureaucratisation of our little democracy.