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Electoral roll makes a mockery of the election

By George Williams - posted Tuesday, 20 July 2010

We are heading to a federal election, but our electoral roll is being left behind. All evidence points to the fact 1.4 million Australians are missing from the roll and will be unable to vote.

In a nation that takes pride in its democratic system, this figure is a national disgrace. One in 10 eligible Australians not even being enrolled makes a mockery of the idea of compulsory attendance at the ballot box. The law may require this, but the reality of our electoral practice demonstrates otherwise.

The number of people off the rolls erodes the legitimacy of the election. On August 21, our next government may be decided by a few thousand votes in a few key marginal seats. A higher level of enrolment could lead to a different outcome.


The problem works especially against interests of young people. They make up most of Australia's missing voters, with only one-in-two 18-year-olds currently enrolled. This makes it much easier to ignore their concerns. The result is a distorted electoral system that fails to reflect the preferences of the population.

Australia's epidemic of under-enrolment exists despite the best efforts of the Australian Electoral Commission. It has long been aware of the problem and has argued for changes to the law, but this has not been forthcoming from Parliament.

In one respect, Parliament has made the system worse. The Howard government ignored the advice of the commission by removing the seven-day enrolment period after the calling of an election. Instead, Australians had until 8pm last night if they wished to enrol for the first time.

Our political leaders have failed to keep the process of electoral enrolment up with the times. We lack a system of automatic enrolment and Australians have not been permitted to enrol online. People are familiar with paying their tax or doing their banking over the internet, but cannot use this when it comes to their electoral information.

Australians bear a personal responsibility as citizens to enrol to vote. However, Parliament also bears the responsibility of ensuring people can do this as easily and efficiently as possible. This is especially the case when the law has been drafted to make enrolment compulsory and imposes a fine for not doing so.

Many people assume when they notify the government online of their change of address details for tax or other purposes it also takes the opportunity to update the electoral roll. This is wrong. In such a case the person's electoral details remain unchanged, and they become ineligible to vote.


GetUp! devised an ingenious way around the limitations of pen and paper enrolment. It set up a website by which people could fill in the Australian Electoral Commission's enrolment form. It then did the legwork of making sure the information got to the commission in the correct manner.

GetUp! has solid grounds for believing it was on the right side of the law. However, its idea has never been tested in the courts, and the organisation rightly took down the website after the commission understandably took a conservative view in deciding not to register the forms.

This will not be the end of the issue. The attempt by GetUp! at online enrolment will probably need to be resolved in the courts over the coming days. Whatever the outcome before a judge, a full system of online enrolment should be a priority for Australia's new government after the election.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on July 19, 2010.

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About the Author

George Williams is the Anthony Mason Professor of law and Foundation Director of the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of New South Wales.

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