Australian Electoral Commissioner
In 2012 the Australian government passed legislation to allow the AEC to directly enrol and update the details of electors based on data from other government agencies. This is a reform that the AEC had been recommending through its submissions to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) for several electoral cycles.
Similar direct enrolment and direct update strategies have been used by the New South Wales and Victorian Electoral Commissions since 2009 and 2010 respectively. Due to the requirements of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (the Electoral Act), the AEC has been unable to add electors who have been directly enrolled in New South Wales and Victoria to the federal roll without having received a signed enrolment form from the elector. Despite the AEC sending these enrolment forms to these people encouraging them to enrol, many have not been returned. This has led to a divergence between the state and federal rolls in Australia's two largest states, with the potential to cause considerable confusion for those affected in regard to their enrolment status for forthcoming electoral events.
Even in the absence of the roll divergence, the AEC believes that direct enrolment and update is necessary to combat the declining enrolment rate. The AEC estimates up to 1.5 million eligible Australians are not enrolled. A significant issue that the AEC considers is contributing to this decline is the low response, as low as 20 per cent, to enrolment letters sent out to electors. In recent years these letters, sent as part of a process called Continuous Roll Update (CRU), have been the backbone of the AEC's enrolment activities.
The AEC regularly obtains data from agencies such as Centrelink and the national driver license database, NEVDIS, about changes of address. Until recently, the AEC has not been able to update the details of electors without the return of a form signed by the elector. However, the Electoral Act requires the AEC to take action to remove the names of electors from the roll if the AEC has reasonable grounds for believing that those electors are no longer living at their enrolled address. Therefore in an environment of declining responses to the AEC's letters, the AEC has been required to remove people from the roll, but has been unable to add them without a response, exacerbating the enrolment decline.
Direct enrolment and direct update allow us to update the details without the direct intervention of the elector. Instead of sending them a form they are required to sign and return, if the elector is satisfied with the AEC's advice regarding our proposed amendments to their details they now do not have to do anything. That is, it is now an opt-out response, rather than an opt-in. Without having to wait for the elector to complete an action, the AEC can be more proactive about maintaining the accuracy of the roll, allowing more Australians to maintain their franchise.
It is important to note that it is only this last step, enrolling or updating the elector's details without their intervention, which is new. The data being used for direct update and direct enrolment is the same data as has been used for CRU. We have been using the data for many years (in some cases more than decade) and understand it well.
The same checks and balances are in place as for any other enrolment – we establish that the individual is a real person, the citizenship of the elector is verified, we ensure that they are not otherwise present on the roll, that the address is a valid residential address and so on. If we are not satisfied that the data meets all of our stringent requirements, the individual is excluded from the direct update and enrolment process and sent a CRU letter to which they must respond before any changes to their enrolment details are made. It is only when the data pass through all of our integrity checks that an individual is sent a direct enrolment or direct update letter. In these circumstances the individual is still given 28 days to respond to us before any change occurs, allowing them a chance to advise if their details are not correct.
We do not refer to the process as "automatic" enrolment, despite this term being used in reference to some of the similar state-based systems, because it is not an automatic process.
The integrity of the roll is of the utmost importance to the AEC. Many of the agencies from which we get data have much more stringent identity tests than are required by the Electoral Act for enrolment, so use of their data is unlikely to negatively impact on the integrity of the roll. However this is only one element of how we approach roll integrity. Direct enrolment and direct update will also increase the currency and completeness of the roll. During non-election times updating enrolment details is not necessarily uppermost on people's minds when they move or turn 18. However there are potentially substantial financial incentives for updating details with Centrelink, and significant fines for not notifying state motor vehicle licencing authority of a change of address.
Despite all of the assurances we have built into the system, we are rolling out the program slowly. We have good reason to believe that direct update and direct enrolment will work well, due to both our knowledge of the data and the lessons learnt from the Victorian and New South Wales electoral commissions' implementation processes. However, when it comes to something as important as the electoral roll it is sensible to proceed cautiously.
The first cycle of the program was undertaken in Tasmania late in 2012, and resulted in a little over 3000 enrolment transactions (new enrolments, reenrolments and updates). The next cycle will target the individuals enrolled under state direct enrolment and update programs to add those individuals to the federal roll. Following that the program will be deployed Australia-wide.
We are also working with our state and territory colleagues to further harmonise legislated enrolment requirements throughout Australia. In South Australia and Western Australia, the AEC's direct enrolment process can only enrol electors for federal purposes, a separate enrolment form must be completed to be enrolled for state elections due to different state requirements. Legislation is currently being introduced in the South Australian Parliament in order to align state and federal enrolment in South Australia, allowing federally directly enrolled South Australians to vote in state elections.
We are confident that over two or three electoral cycles, these reforms will help arrest the declining rates of enrolment we have seen over the past decade. That said, there will still be pockets of serious under-enrolment, such as in Indigenous communities, for which direct enrolment alone is unlikely to solve the challenge and different more hands-on solutions will still be required. The AEC is already engaged in activities such as the Indigenous Electoral Participation Program to address some of these gaps.
Against this background it is therefore appropriate and timely to shift the focus of debate, research and possible reforms to one of our other indicators of our democratic health: the number of people who are enrolled but do not vote. In 2010 that number was around 900 000, an increase of more than 150 000 from the 2007 and 2004 elections.
We believe 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 turnout 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, enrolment reforms are not necessarily a panacea to non-voting. The number of people enrolled but not voting is still approaching 1 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 the next step of getting people to the ballot box at election time.