'From Enrolment to Voting: A New Debate'

Updated: 6 September 2012

Address by Mr Ed Killesteyn, Electoral Commissioner

Year of Enrolment, AEC Seminar Series and book launch for Dr Aaron Martin 'Young People and Politics'

4 September 2012

I would like to acknowledge traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

Over the last several years, the Australian Electoral Commission's (AEC) business strategies, and our recommendations to Parliament for electoral reform, have been driven by our assessment of 'the health of the Australian democracy'.

There are no doubt many ways to measure, let alone define what a 'healthy democracy' looks like, but for the AEC, given its legislatively mandated responsibility to manage the electoral roll, conduct elections, and deliver community education about how our electoral system functions – the three 'e's: enrolment, elections and education – a healthy democracy can be measured by

  • the number of people on the roll, or not on the roll
  • the number of people who turn out, or don't turn out to vote on election day, and
  • the number of people who vote but whose vote is rendered informal for some reason.

Benchmarking each of these three components at the time of the 2010 election gives the following picture:

  • 1.5 million out of a possible 15.5 million eligible citizens were not enrolled – up from 1.2 million at the beginning of 2009 when I first started in this job
  • nearly 900 000 of the 14 million registered voters did not vote at the 2010 election, and
  • 730 000 House of Representatives votes were informal.

In other words, more than three million Australians did not exercise their franchise at the 2010 election in the formation of our Government, or roughly one in five of those entitled to do so. At the 2007 election, the same set of statistics indicated about 2.7 million people did not exercise their franchise effectively.

Now I hasten to add that not all of these three million electors are engaging in a form of civil disobedience by not enrolling or voting.

For example, it is clear from our analysis that the AEC conducts after each election that slightly more than half of the informal votes cast in the 2010 election were as a consequence of an "unintended" error by the elector in completing the ballot paper. And many of those non-voters who we wrote to after the election offered a valid and sufficient reason for their failure to vote.

But it is also clear from the evidence that the trend is for increasing numbers of otherwise eligible electors to remain outside of the electoral system, noting that the Australian electoral system is distinguished by a longstanding commitment to compulsory enrolment and compulsory voting, which have been in place since 1912 and 1924 respectively. Elector surveys show that the compulsory nature of our system continues to have high levels of support from the Australian community.

While we have been working across a number of fronts, the most pressing priority has been on the first of the democratic health indicators I mentioned above; that is, the number of people not enrolled, quite simply because of the sheer numbers involved.

The Australian Parliament has enacted a number of legislative reforms to the Commonwealth Electoral Act in the last two years which are explicitly aimed at improving enrolment levels.

The first reform, in July 2010, amended the Act to allow already enrolled electors to more easily update their address details after changing residential address by utilising the internet rather than a paper form requiring a physical signature. Since 2010 the AEC has steadily improved that online system to the point where today approximately 30 per cent of all enrolment transactions are being conducted via that online interface. Given the ubiquity of the internet and mobile devices, ultimately this makes it easier for people to comply with their obligations.

The second, more recent and more significant, but equally more controversial, reform was an amendment to the Act in July this year which gives the Electoral Commissioner authority to directly enrol a person, or to update his/her address details, based on third party information. Similar legislation was enacted by the Parliaments of New South Wales and Victoria in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

The AEC will commence direct enrolment and direct update shortly. We are confident that over two or three electoral cycles, these reforms will arrest and reverse the declining rates of enrolment we have seen over the last decade. That said, there will still be pockets of serious under-enrolment, such as in Indigenous communities, for which direct enrolment is unlikely to solve the challenge and different, more hands on solutions will be required.

Against this background, it is therefore appropriate, and timely to shift the focus of debate, understanding and possible reforms to the second of our democratic health indicators: the number of people enrolled but who do not vote. As I mentioned earlier, in 2010 that was around 900 000 – an increase of more than 150 000 experienced in the 2007 and 2004 elections.

The early evidence suggests that the fact of being enrolled itself is a significant motivator for voting. Using the experience of the NSW Electoral Commission in the 2011 State Election for example, 77 per cent of directly enrolled or directly updated voters exercised their right to vote. Significantly 64 per cent of new electors voted, and of that group, 66 per cent were aged 18 to 35 years, compared to 51 per cent in the age category 36 years and above. As the NSW Electoral Commission stated in its submission to the NSW Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, on their direct enrolment system, 'this is not surprising, as anyone older than 35 that has not yet registered to vote is unlikely to be interested in voting'.

It is arguable that had these people not been put on the roll, they would not have voted.

In effect, the evidence suggests that the enrolment reforms of New South Wales, Victoria and now the Commonwealth, will lead to a better overall turnout on election day; that is an increase in the absolute number of people who vote, albeit that the percentage may fall. That is a good policy outcome from the perspective of the health of the Australian democracy. But in the view of the AEC, of itself, enrolment reforms are not necessarily a total panacea to non-voting. The number of people enrolled but not voting is still approaching one million across the Commonwealth. It is for this reason the AEC is keen to encourage a fresh debate, one that can build on the enrolment reforms recently introduced by the AEC and Parliament, but focuses on getting people to the ballot box at election time.

Aaron Martin's book, Young People and Politics is a timely contribution to the debate and for me, as an Electoral Commissioner responsible for administering the Electoral Act, a useful guide, not only in understanding possible causal factors but also what might be done about it.

In this respect I was particularly interested in Chapter Seven of the book, where Aaron explores four areas of policy reform about what can be done: civic education, elite mobilisation, registration burdens and electoral system reforms.

If I may, I would make two observations about these prescriptions for action.

First, I am heartened by the fact that a number of the prescriptions are in areas that are already being pursued. I have already spoken about reforms to the enrolment process that will alleviate the administrative burden on electors.

In the area of civic education, I am pleased to report that the AEC will soon be launching a new service to schools, called Get Voting, which will offer to schools the opportunity for the AEC to conduct elections for school representatives in accordance with exactly the same standards of integrity, independence and transparency that we use to conduct federal elections. This is based on research which suggests a level of distrust by students of the outcome of school elections, with that distrust carrying on with them as they leave school and influencing the way in which they participate, or don't participate, in our electoral system. We hope that Get Voting will lead to establishing life-long habits of participating in elections.

Aaron also identifies 'simulation' exercises to stimulate young people's interest in politics. For the Year of Enrolment, our Indigenous Electoral Participation Program (IEPP) developed a program of events, with the flagship of the program being the National Indigenous Youth Parliament held in Canberra from 23–29 May 2012. Fifty young Indigenous Australians spent six days in Canberra learning about the workings of government and debating the issues of importance to them and their communities. It was a chance to meet and learn from politicians, government officials and prominent Australians, to develop their leadership skills and build professional networks.

My second observation though is that Aaron's prescriptions suggest that the health of our democracy, at least in the way we in the AEC define it, is an issue for all of us: for administrators, for politicians, for educators and the community generally.

I commend this book as food for thought to all those stakeholders in our precious democracy.