Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters

Updated: 1 February 2011

Opening Address by Mr Ed Killesteyn, Electoral Commissioner

Hearing of 17 March 2009


Good afternoon

I'm both pleased and honoured to appear before the Committee as the Australian Electoral Commissioner, and I look forward to the opportunity to build on the substantial reputation the AEC has established for delivering highly professional electoral services.

2009 marks the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Australian Electoral Commission as an independent statutory authority, and comes at a time when change to the electoral system to meet the needs of a modern society has widespread interest and is the subject of public debate and a Government-led reform process. This anniversary is not only an opportunity to reflect on the AEC's achievements over the past 25 years, but also to focus on how we can continue to deliver electoral services that are responsive to the needs of the Australian community for the next 25 years.

As I go about the task of developing directions for the AEC, I have been exploring how the AEC can build on its excellent reputation and good relationships with stakeholders by focussing on the need for modernisation of the federal electoral system. The AEC must keep pace with the Australian community's changing expectations regarding the delivery of services. We need to maintain an "elector-centric" outlook in the way we think about our business and services. We also need to continue and extend the productive relationships we have built with partners such as State electoral commissions, and invest in skill development and equipping of our staff with contemporary systems and tools in our efforts to modernise AEC services to the community.

The JSCEM is looking at many important electoral issues that we in the AEC will work hard to support, but I want to focus my remarks today on an emerging issue which is fundamental in our democratic system – preserving and enhancing the franchise of Australian citizens.


One of the biggest challenges currently facing the AEC is to ensure that Australian citizens get the chance to exercise their key democratic right – their franchise.

One critical aspect of this is the need for the electoral roll to be as accurate and complete as possible at all times, including between federal elections, reflecting the fact that the roll is also used for state, territory and local government elections. In this respect I note that during 2008, there were 82 roll closures – the need for the roll to be up-to-date and kept up-to-date is self evident. This demonstrates that the debate should be about how we can do that at all times, not just at the time of a federal election.

As at the end of February 2009, there are over 13.8 million electors on the electoral roll.

While this figure represents an increase in the number of electors enrolled since the 2007 federal election; that is, 13.645m, it does not match the increase in the number of eligible voters in the community.

At the 2007 federal election an estimated 92.3% of the total number of eligible voters were on the electoral roll. This represented an increase of 0.8% on the estimated participation rate at the 2004 federal election.

The enrolment participation rate has now dropped to a level of 91.63%, in spite of the increase in the number of electors currently on the electoral roll.

Discussion of the participation rate in percentage terms however masks the true extent of the disenfranchisement that exists in the Australian community. We estimate there are about 1.2 million eligible voters currently not on the electoral roll, and therefore are not able to exercise their franchise. Even to achieve a 95% participation rate, the AEC's stated target, would require nearly a further 700 000 new enrolments by mid 2010 based on population projections. To maintain the participation rate at the level we secured for the 2007 election ie 92.3% at the end of 2010 would require nearly 300 000 additional enrolments. Even this more modest target is around 100 000 more enrolments than the AEC was able to achieve with the large scale enrolment stimulation activities employed ahead of the last election.


Our traditional approach to stimulating electoral enrolment has been based on targeted programs that match data from a number of government agencies with our roll database, and using direct mail communication, field work and a number of other activities to encourage people to enrol and update their enrolments when they move house. Unfortunately, however, these methods are not as effective as they once were.

Faced with a declining participation rate, in early 2007, the AEC implemented an intensive, targeted enrolment promotion program. We used people movement data from other government agencies, as well as data mining of our roll system to try to identify electors who were not enrolled or were incorrectly enrolled, and to encourage them to get on the roll at their current addresses before the federal election.

This program operated for approximately seven months from March 2007 and was the first time the AEC had carried out targeted door-knocks on such a large scale. The program was run concurrently with a national advertising campaign and complemented by our on-going enrolment-promoting mailouts, a national Enrol to Vote Week to encourage young people to enrol, and AEC participation in citizenship ceremonies around the country to assist new Australians get on the roll. This activity led to the 92.3% participation rate ahead of the last federal election, one of the highest it has been since the measure was first calculated.

This targeted enrolment promotion demonstrated that well-funded and coordinated activities, including media and public awareness activities, can promote significant growth in enrolment in the lead up to a federal election. Such activity will always be part of any efforts to preserve and enhance the franchise.

Significantly however, it is worth noting that the roll stimulation activities and advertising came at a cost of some $30M, some $24M of which was advertising costs. While some funds came from Government in relation to informing the community about the proof of identity and roll closure changes, nearly two thirds of the costs were funded by the AEC through accessing its cash reserves. This strategy of roll stimulation through large scale advertising funded from AEC reserves is not sustainable. Nor can we rely solely on a peak of enrolment activity in the lead up to a federal election announcement to boost enrolment participation.

The AEC's continued use of "snail mail" to reach people who we believe need to get on the roll or update their enrolments is not delivering a sufficient response to achieve higher participation rates. In 2007–08, the AEC wrote to over 3 million people as part of our roll review and roll stimulation activities, and only received 703 818 completed enrolment application forms back.

Community attitudes towards, and responses to, hard copy direct mail have been undergoing change, in response to growing volumes of junk mail and the switching of many daily personal and business communications to electronic alternatives, such as email and SMS messaging.

Australians increasingly expect as the norm, convenient, 24 hour access to business and government services. The requirement to fill in a paper application form to update enrolment is seen by many to be outdated compared with the electronic channels they use to interact with businesses and many other government agencies.


The AEC needs to adopt new ways of thinking about the challenge of preserving and enhancing the franchise of Australian citizens. Focussing on promoting the community's voluntary compliance with the electoral laws is one key dimension of the new perspective which is required. AEC public awareness raising and education programs must promote understanding of electoral obligations in the community, while our services should be improved in ways that make it as easy as possible for people to comply with these obligations.

Enabling electors to update their electoral enrolment details electronically would help bring AEC enrolment services more in line with contemporary community expectations regarding services. For example, if we focus on those already-registered voters who merely update their enrolment as a consequence of a change of address or name, over 1 million of the 1.3 million enrolment transactions the AEC did last year could have been done electronically, and hence would represent a major advance in modernisation of the AEC's enrolment service. Australian consumers, particularly younger Australians, expect that service providers, business and government, will make available relevant services and products they want at the time they need them. They also expect that providers will make their products and services easy to access, preferably 24/7, and conveniently from their own home.

Electors are visiting the AEC website in increasing numbers, both for information and to find various electoral forms. During October 2007 alone (the election close of rolls period), over one quarter of enrolment forms received were obtained from the AEC website. 2.6 million people went onto the AEC's internet site before the last federal election to confirm their enrolment details. This is key evidence that rapidly growing numbers of electors prefer to manage their enrolment on-line with the AEC. The increase in the number of scanned and emailed enrolment applications received by the AEC before the 2007 election is also evidence of a growing community preference for electronic enrolment services.

Allowing these electors to update their enrolment details on-line when they move house would immediately and directly engage with electors at the time they are visiting the AEC website. On-line updating of enrolment information through a secure channel would be a safer way of transmitting personal information than the current method, which an increasing number of people are adopting, of scanning and emailing the AEC completed enrolment forms.

In an attempt to move towards meeting consumer expectations, the AEC is introducing later this year a "smartform" on our website, which will allow an enrolment application to be completed on-line and the data captured by our roll system. The form, due to legislative requirements, must still then be printed, signed and sent to the AEC where the electronic record will be matched with the paper record before any change is made to the electoral roll database. The need for a follow-up paper form is a major risk to the efficacy of this much needed innovation. The moment of truth will be getting the signed form back from the enrolee, as their enrolment transaction will not update the electoral roll until the AEC gets the signed form.

Other innovative methods of updating enrolment details have been canvassed, including "direct address update", which was covered in considerable detail in the AEC's second submission to the Committee's inquiry into the 2007 federal election.

Moving towards meeting consumer expectations for more convenient enrolment services does not necessarily weaken in any way the integrity of the electoral roll. Ensuring that the integrity of the electoral roll is maintained must be a key consideration with the introduction of any new service that makes it easier and more convenient for people to enrol or to update their enrolments. Thorough checks and balances can be built in to ensure that the integrity of the roll is not compromised in any way.

To sum up, in my view, there are aspects of our existing legislative framework that represent something of a strait jacket limiting the scope for new, innovative ways of providing convenient enrolment services to the Australian community. I believe that without legislative change to allowing some electronic options for updating enrolments, we run the risk of further decline in the enrolment participation rate.


I hope I've provided some useful comments today about one of the biggest challenges facing the AEC, ensuring that all Australian citizens get the chance to exercise their franchise. To this end, I have shared with you some of my thoughts about how we could modernise our enrolment services, and I have spoken about the need to review legislative limitations on developing some new approaches in this area.

This is not a plea for additional funding for the AEC. Rather I want to promote discussion about providing the AEC with a modern legislative framework to more effectively undertake its core task of preserving and enhancing the franchise for all Australians – a legislative framework that would allow us to use the best of the traditional methods of strengthening the roll at the same time as opening new channels for transacting enrolments. The AEC is certainly ready and keen to engage in this challenge.