Radio Interview Transcript - Mechanics of Voting

Updated: 1 February 2011

Station: Radio National
Program: The National Interest
Date: 7 August 2009
Topic: Discussion about people missing from the elctoral roll.
Interviewees: Ed Killesteyn, Australian Electoral Commissioner

PETER MARES: The Australian Electoral Commission is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. It was in 1984 that the old Electoral Office became an independent statutory authority.

The commission, of course, conducts referendums and federal elections, and it establishes committees to oversee seat red… distributions and boundary changes. Always a contentious process.

The commission is also responsible for maintaining the Commonwealth electoral roll. And to celebrate its silver jubilee, the commission is looking for 1.2 million missing voters. Australians who would be eligible to vote but who are not enrolled.

Ed Killesteyn began his five year appointment as the Australian Electoral Commissioner in January. And, as far as I can tell, this is the first interview he's done since taking up the job. Mr Killesteyn, welcome to The National Interest.

ED KILLESTEYN: Hello Peter, thank you for inviting me.

PETER MARES: Who are these 1.2 million people who are missing from the electoral roll?

ED KILLESTEYN: Look, it's a – quite a diverse group, but perhaps the most – the majority of them really relate to younger people.

We know, on the basis of our demographic analysis that nearly a third of the 1.2 million people in the 18 to 24 year old group, and so on…

PETER MARES: Are these people then who've never enrolled?

ED KILLESTEYN: I think it does include those and it probably also includes some who have dropped off the roll after some time. Interestingly, when you break the – that cohort down, we know that one in two 18 year old Australians are not enrolled to vote. So it's probably clear that that group has never really been enrolled before.

After that, obviously, as they get a little bit older, and if they have been enrolled, then they probably drop off after, perhaps, living overseas or moving around, those sorts of things, which often causes them to be removed from the roll.

PETER MARES: Now, dropping off happens, particularly, I guess, when people move house and don't get around to updating their enrolment.

ED KILLESTEYN: That's correct. There is a requirement in the Commonwealth Electoral Act that whenever you move addresses, and on the basis that you've lived at a particular address for more than 28 days, then you're required to update your enrolment. And that requires that you complete an enrolment application again, and provide to the Australian Electoral Commission all of the details associated with your identity and your new address.

PETER MARES: And that's a pretty cumbersome process that, perhaps, could be made easier. But that – we'll come to that in a moment.

I guess, the other groups who are missing from the electoral roll and who would be much harder to enrol would be homeless people and, perhaps, remote Indigenous populations, and so on.

ED KILLESTEYN: Of course. They are, clearly, a challenge for us. And I think the Government has probably recognised that challenge, particularly with the Indigenous population.

In the last Budget, the Government announced that it was providing to the AEC some $13 million over four years to upgrade its initiatives and programs that have a target of increasing the participation of Indigenous people.

Ultimately, the numbers though of Indigenous and homeless people are relatively small, and, in some respects, while we hope for significant success in that area, the numbers are sufficiently small that it won't materially change the 1.2 million that we are currently focusing on.

PETER MARES: I can't let that pass without noting that while the Government gave the commission extra money to enrol indigenous voters, it also told the commission to shut down its two electoral education centres in Melbourne and Adelaide which might have been seen as a best – the – you know, one of the useful ways of getting young people enrolled when they turn 18.

ED KILLESTEYN: Yeah. Look, it's a – it was a difficult decision on the part of government and, certainly, difficult for us to implement. And, you know, you've given me an opportunity to perhaps express my thanks to the people that were involved in those education centres in Adelaide and Melbourne.

I should say, however, that there's no signal there, or it should not be interpreted that either the Government or the AEC isn't serious about dealing with younger people that are not on the roll.

It's just interesting to reflect, however, about what the most efficient strategies are. In the Melbourne and Adelaide education centres, I think, in the calendar year 2008, we would have probably seen less than 20 000 students attend those education centres. In marked contrast with the national education centre here in Canberra, which had more than 80 000 students go through its doors.

And so, when you think about those numbers, and you think, well, what is probably the best way that we can provide youth generally with information about electoral matters and responsibilities, my mind increasingly turns to the education system, and that's where we're now working with other agencies at the federal level to see if we can get a stronger presence in the national curriculum that the Government is now developing.

PETER MARES: So getting out to the schools rather than getting the schools to come into you to those education centres.

ED KILLESTEYN: Absolutely. I think that's much more efficient, because, you know, you could imagine a situation where we touch, in some way, every primary and secondary school student throughout their primary and secondary school lives, and I think that's a much more effective approach, and we're certainly now focused on developing that type of approach.

PETER MARES: The current enrolment rate is below 92 percent. I think the aim that the AEC target – the Electoral Commission's target is a 95 percent enrolment rate. What would it take – you know, what are the sort of numbers we're looking at if we want to get the enrolment up to 95 percent before the next election?

ED KILLESTEYN: They are daunting. If we were to achieve a 95 per cent participation rate by the middle of next year, 2010, then we would need to add some 700 000 new electors to the roll by that time.

PETER MARES: And what are the precedents here? I mean, how successful have your drives been in the past to get people to enrol, or re-enrol or adjust their enrolment?

ED KILLESTEYN: Well, if you take the very extensive and comprehensive program that was conducted ahead of the 2007 election – which involved something in the order of $30 million in expenditure, $24 million of which was advertising, some one million doors were knocked on as part of our targeted enrolment strategy – then we achieved a growth in the electoral roll of some 200 000. So it is unprecedented.

And even to achieve the same participation rate that we had at the 2007 election, for the next election – let's assume for the moment that it's some time around 2010, and I should quickly add I have no knowledge at all about when the next election is – but simply to achieve the same participation rate that we had at 2007 would require nearly 300 000 additional new electors. So it's quite a daunting task…

PETER MARES: You would have – you would have…

ED KILLESTEYN: … it would be unprecedented.

PETER MARES: Yeah, you would have to get 50 percent more people enrolling than you got last time after spending $30 million. So you'd have to spend, what, $40 million, $50 million, let's say, if it – it you're going to make it happen, using the methods you used last time.

ED KILLESTEYN: If you – that's correct, Peter, the – your numbers are correct. And so, clearly, that takes us down the path of looking for alternative strategies because, I mean, in these times…

PETER MARES: What, because you spent all your reserves on the last drive and the AEC doesn't have any money left?

ED KILLESTEYN: Well, we have some money left, but I'm intent on ensuring that those reserves are available for us during the election time, which is when our expenditure increases significantly.

So we need to look for more innovative strategies to do that, and that's clearly around the way in which we can modernise the way in which the AEC and the Electoral Act enables us to engage with citizens who wish to enrol or update their enrolment.

PETER MARES: Essentially, what you're talking about here is bringing the enrolment process into the 21st century. You gave evidence earlier this year to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and you talked about this there; and you suggested some things that appear pretty basic really, which would be such as allowing us if we move house to update our enrolment on line.

ED KILLESTEYN: Indeed, I think they are the sorts of ways in which citizens now increasingly expect to do their business with government. So it's important for us to encourage that debate about how the Commonwealth Electoral Act can be modernised.

They won't be a panacea for the numbers that we have just spoken about, but they will certainly go a long way to improving the way in which citizens, and particularly youth, can interact easily with the AEC.

It's about promoting voluntary compliance with a person's obligations under the Electoral Act. And voluntary compliance has two elements to it. One is that people need to be aware of their obligations and so that really takes us down the path of much more extensive education programs in primary and secondary schools, which I've spoken about.

But the second element is to make it easy for people to comply, and that really means looking for ways in which citizens who wish to enrol or wish to update their enrolment details can do that simply. And online transactions and using data from other agencies is one of those mechanisms by which we can make it easy for people to comply.

PETER MARES: So data from other agencies would mean that, for example, if someone changes the address on their driver's licence, a flag goes up and the Electoral Commission's alerted? Something like that?

ED KILLESTEYN: Well, we already have that information. We do quite extensive data-matching with other agencies, including driver's licence authorities, information from Centrelink and so forth. And we use that to match our address data. But the requirements currently of the Electoral Act require that we cannot automatically update a person's address, so we go into a process of writing to the individual and seeking them to update their information.

PETER MARES: And then they have to fill out that form and get it witnessed and all – and so on?

ED KILLESTEYN: That's correct. And that's where – I mean, we're quite active there. It just – last May, we sent out over half a million letters to individuals where we had detected that an address change had occurred. But what we generally find is that 20 to 25 percent of those letters, we get some sort of response from, and the rest we get no response. And we will issue a further reminder, and again, we get a 20 to 25 percent response.

So it's – they're good strategies and we'll continue to use them, but I think we need to supplement them with more modern approaches.

PETER MARES: Well, you could have, as you suggest, an automatic system whereby if all the evidence is that, you know, I've moved and I'm at a new address, then I'm automatically enrolled and I'm informed, you know, my automatic – my enrolment is also changed; I'm informed of that and if I object, then I can say, no, no, I haven't actually moved house.

ED KILLESTEYN: That's correct. And I'm – I just wanted to point to the fact that these are ultimately matters for Parliament and I think it's useful to note that the latest report from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters – which looks at the experience with each election – has pointed to some of these innovations and so, it's for the Government now to look at the response to those joint standing committees. But at least, you know, we've got a focus on what is possible.

PETER MARES: This is The National Interest on ABC Radio National; and I'm speaking to the Australian Electoral Commissioner, Mr Ed Killesteyn, and we're discussing updating the system of enrolment that's in Australia so that we could get some of those 1.2 million missing voters back on the rolls.

Mr Killesteyn, when these issues are raised, the concern is always that this will increase the likelihood of electoral fraud. Is that a concern?

ED KILLESTEYN: Look, I think it is. I mean, obviously, we have twin objectives in managing the roll. One is to make it as complete as possible, and – so that's a focus on the numbers. But at the same time it has to be accurate and it has to be a high-integrity electoral roll.

And so, simply opening up a channel for people to update their information on line, in our view, we can do that in a way which preserves the integrity of the roll. There would be no checks or balances that we currently apply to the paper process that we wouldn't also apply to an online process.

PETER MARES: And that would be things like cross-checking with other agencies and so on.

ED KILLESTEYN: Absolutely. The evidence of identity that an individual provides for their application, a driver's licence, for instance, is checked with the driver's licence authorities. And we would continue to do that, as well as checking other things. We have some fairly clever approaches to checking the veracity of the information that's provided, including checking things about the address that a person claims that they're living at. We know quite a lot about addresses and what should be there and what shouldn't be there.

So all of those checks and balances would be part of any new system should the Government wish to go down that path.

PETER MARES: What evidence is there of electoral fraud or multiple voting at elections?

ED KILLESTEYN: There's no evidence of systemic fraud that we are aware of. There'll be the occasional individual that might seek to be a bit mischievous, but we're pretty clever at detecting those sorts of mischievous attempts.

PETER MARES: Yeah, there is some double voting, too, though, isn't there. And as I understand it, most double voting is by people aged over 70.

ED KILLESTEYN: Yes, that's been an interesting feature whenever we do the post-election checks. The double voting that's occurred, we've been able to identify that it generally occurs with people who are elderly. Often, they're people who, because we make a service available to individuals in the pre-election period where we will send out mobile polling teams – particularly to hospitals and aged care facilities and so forth, we often find that when we've checked on apparent multiple voters, that they're individuals that may have voted at one of our mobile polling stations and then the family comes along on election day, and suggests that they're all going to conduct their vote, and often they forget that they've done it.

PETER MARES: And so grandma or grandpa gets to vote twice.

ED KILLESTEYN: Exactly. And so the joint standing committee has recommended to us that we take steps to ensure that individuals that – who have cast a vote in the pre-poll period are given some form of document. A letter, or whatever, that they can then present, perhaps to their family, or whoever, to indicate that they've already conducted a ballot.

PETER MARES: What about the view that people who don't get around to updating their electoral details have themselves to blame. You know, if they can't be bothered to go to the post office and get the form and fill it in, then they should forfeit their right to vote.

ED KILLESTEYN: Well the franchise has existed since 1911. We've had compulsory voting since 1924.
It's an important, fundamental iconic aspect of Australia's democratic system. And against that background it seems to me that my role is to ensure that we do everything possible to make it easy as – for people to update their enrolment details.

PETER MARES: Mr Killesteyn, let's turn to the issue of electoral redistributions. Late last month, the redistribution committee made recommendations to create a new seat in south-east Queensland to reflect that's a growing population there, and today, Friday, the redistribution committee for New South Wales has recommended the loss of a seat in New South Wales so that the numbers balance out in the House of Representatives.

Now this is always a contentious process. The Queensland redistribution was seen very much to be to Labor's benefit. How do you go about making these kind of decisions?

ED KILLESTEYN: Can I just correct one thing that you said, if you'll allow me, Peter. The redistribution committee in New South Wales did not recommend that New South Wales should lose a seat. That effectively comes about as a consequences of the provisions within the Electoral Act, and the Electoral Act determines the entitlement that each state has to House of Representative seats. And it's based upon estimates made by the Australian Bureau of Statistics of populations.

PETER MARES: Yeah, so it's a mathematical – you have to work out a mathematical type of formula, and obviously we've got a population that's moved to Queensland and New South Wales has lost population. So Queensland gains a seat. New South Wales loses one.

I guess the point is, though, your committee or the committee you sit on then has to determine which seat disappears within New South Wales, and how the boundaries are redrawn.

ED KILLESTEYN: That's correct, yes. And there are guidelines that are provided within the Commonwealth Electoral Act about the way in which the redistribution process is followed.

Essentially, there's a hierarchical set of criteria which starts with ensuring that as nearly as possible, each division in each state has roughly the same number of electors in it, and essentially that goes back to the fundamental principle that we have in our democratic system of one value, one vote.

We then have a number of other criteria which would be regarded perhaps as secondary criteria. They're important. But they're secondary criteria, which focus on trying to ensure that, as much as possible, the redistributions reflect communities of interest, and broad geographic areas.

So for example there are some hard geographic boundaries which are difficult to cross, say, in New South Wales, where you have the Blue Mountains to the west. You'd have actual state borders, which you cannot cross, obviously, because the entitlements are based on state boundaries.

So they're all hard geographic features which often demonstrate communities of interest, but equally demonstrate transport links between parts of the state. And so within those criteria, the redistribution committee then does considerable forensic work.

It is a highly forensic activity. We seek to shift boundaries around, and make sure that, as I say, we meet those numerical tolerances and those other conditions.

PETER MARES: And do you look at the political implications of what you're doing – you know, if you shift this working class suburb into this rural seat, it's going to change the balance of that sort of thing? I mean, is that a consideration?

ED KILLESTEYN: No, it's not. The redistribution committee does not take into account the voting patterns that have been demonstrated in the past. It's not provided for in the Act and we cannot take it into account.

The process itself is highly independent and highly transparent. It not only includes myself as the presiding officer of the redistribution committee, but it also includes officials from the relevant state government.

And those officials are the Surveyor General and the Auditor-General, simply to ensure that the exercise is conducted in as transparent and independent way as possible.

PETER MARES: Ed Killesteyn, thank you very much for your time.

ED KILLESTEYN: Thank you very much Peter for having me on your program.

PETER MARES: Australian Electoral Commissioner Ed Killesteyn. And the proposed redistributions in Queensland and New South Wales are both open for objections on the Electoral Commission's website.

You'll find a link on the National Interest home page,, where you can click the have your say button to give us your thoughts on redistributions or on how to get those missing 1.2 million voters back on the electoral roll.

Or, you can leave a message on the feedback line – 1300 936 222.