Things looked murky in the recent Zimbabwean elections: 100,000 voters, it was claimed, were aged over 100, and more than a million Zimbabweans voted from the grave.
Voting antics in Russia’s parliament look highly questionable, too; deputies have simply pressed buttons to vote for MPs who don’t turn up. Recently, 440 MPs “passed” a bill although only eighty-eight were actually present.
And Australia? For years the system has been untouched and untouchable; ridicule of the “hanging chads” in the 2000 US presidential election enforced the myth that we have the world’s greatest voting system. But under the guise of reform, a once-secure system has had its parts changed or discarded to make it “easier and simpler” to vote—although no one had complained that it was difficult. Our electoral system is now a scandalous shambles that depends on a degree of honesty no business would accept.
But events in the last federal election have blown the lid off our complacency: more than a thousand votes disappeared, then miraculously reappeared, in Sophie Mirabella’s electorate of Indi. Then 1375 West Australian Senate votes went “missing”—by accident, incompetence or malpractice? Who knows? Our voting system presents opportunities for fraud that seem positively to invite corruption.
Al Capone’s simple advice, “Vote early, vote often”, is used in Australia half-humorously, accompanied by a slightly embarrassed laugh meaning, “You and I wouldn’t do it, but we know others do.” The desire for power is a motivator without equal and if something can be done, who would be so naive as to say it has not been done, or will not be done?
The original “Australian ballot” of 1856 had ballot papers numbered and traceable if a result was in doubt; but that accountability was gradually discarded. Under the Hawke government, the Australian Electoral Office, responsible to parliament, became the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), an independent statutory authority responsible to itself—and the downward slide began in earnest.
To enrol as a voter now you fill in a form from a post office or online, either as yourself or any number of phantoms allegedly living at your or a mythical address. Subdivisional rolls, where a name was on the roll at only one polling place, were axed, so now a name is on the roll at every polling booth in an electorate. There is nothing to stop anyone going from booth to booth and voting as themselves or a phantom. Later, when votes are counted, no one knows if they come from a real or a non-existent person voting once or multiple times.
Constantly defensive and dismissive of calls for change, the AEC repeats the mantra of former Commissioners Grey and Becker. In Becker’s words: “There has been no evidence that any federal election has been subjected to any widespread and organised conspiracy that could have affected the result of those federal elections.” But it doesn’t take “organised conspiracy” to change a result. A handful of votes will do, as evidenced in the last election.
The most obvious and simplest step to stem any “irregularities”—a euphemism beloved of the AEC—is to require that ID be shown before voting. Getting your hair cut these days is about the only thing where you don’t need ID, but it has proved too hard for the AEC. This, along with an electronic roll, which allows a name to be erased from all rolls once a person has voted, should be front-and-centre for the AEC. Expensive and sophisticated fixes like biometrics technology that recognises fingerprints and facial features, and physical markings on the hand such, ironically, as the AEC recommends for Third World countries, could come later. First things first.
But instead of taking steps to ensure voters are who they claim to be, before the last election the AEC was busy “replacing” their 2012 “Backgrounder” on electoral advertising. This bizarrely verbose document, seeming often to contradict itself, presents itself as the arbiter of free speech on “matter intended or likely to affect voting”. Criminal prosecutions are threatened for “illegal practices”, with “penalty units” in thousands of dollars for miscreants transgressing the rules in its multiple sections and subsections. It is particularly fixated on “authorisation” of advertisements, including printer details, presumably to make it easy to find the culprits. But—joy!—fridge magnets are excepted.
Meanwhile, the AEC’s own advertising seemed both strange and superfluous. Why were they encouraging sixteen-year-olds to enrol? Obviously they could not have turned eighteen before September 7.
In July 2013 the AEC took the extraordinary step of putting 1.5 million young Australians over eighteen, including non-citizens, on the electoral roll by harvesting names from government departments, tax file numbers or information from “third parties”. Not a peep from the usually noisy privacy lot on this one. As the new enrollees were not asked or told that they were now on the rolls, many would not have voted. Did someone vote in their name? No one knows.
Most people are honest, but when they choose not to be there need be no stab of conscience: they have heard the siren call of “noble cause corruption”—the belief that illegal conduct can be excused if the end is for the common good. As the industrial relations expert Grace Collier put it, referring to unions, but equally applicable here:
Anything improper can be justified as proper when it is for “the good” … when a law is “unjust” you have a “duty” to ignore it. Civil disobedience is okay if the end justifies the means.
Granny may have been in the cemetery for years, but voting from the grave will be justified when it’s not for personal benefit (“traditional corruption”) but for “the good” of the party. If the means justify the end, then go ahead, cheat, be corrupt, do whatever you can to get your party elected. Our present system gives you every opportunity to do just that.
Pre-polling and postal voting, once intended only for those with a genuine reason for voting before election day, have increased exponentially as rules have gone out the window. In 2010 2.5 million people voted early; on September 7 it was 3.2 million. Did they vote again on election day? Again, nobody knows.
The buck stops with the AEC and its chairman, Ed Killesteyne. Before the September election, Labor reappointed Mr Killesteyne until 2019, although his term was not up until January 2014.
The AEC, Killesteyne said, “took voting very seriously”, but taking things seriously and doing anything about “irregularities” are two different matters. Voting fraud is undetectable, untraceable and therefore unpunishable corruption. It is an invisible crime. But the AEC has constantly ignored the multiple submissions and petitions for reform. For years, in a display of masterful inaction, the supposed guardian of our democracy has sat on its hands and done absolutely nothing to right a plethora of wrongs.
While the results in Western Australia have put the spotlight on the AEC, this debacle should not let Senate voting and side issues, important as they are, distract from the fundamental necessity: the complete overhaul of our electoral system. Until the AEC’s dead hand is taken off the tiller, reform will remain a mirage and we will continue to wonder if those we have apparently elected to govern us actually deserve to be in parliament at all.
Julia Patrick contributed “The Radical Ambitions of Green Sustainability” to the September issue.