The Queensland government last week introduced a bill to parliament that, when passed, will make voter identification a prerequisite for casting a ballot. This is a first for Australia and follows several American states and other western nations.
For state polls, Queensland voters will need to present a current driver’s license, passport, recent public utility bill or an ID card issued by the government, such as a Medicare or seniors’ card.
Queensland has witnessed many firsts in Australian politics: electing the first Labor government and the only member of the Communist Party (Fred Paterson), and also becoming the only state to abolish its Upper House in 1922. Electoral reform is also something of an Australian tradition, including pioneering the secret ballot.
Conspiracies about voter fraud abound, but how real a problem is it? Coalition frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull suggests there may be a problem, observing recently that “the current system is fraught with errors”:
…there are a large number of people who … go to the polling place and say they are someone else.
Most of them are doing so honestly – they are doing so on behalf of a friend who is away or who is sick.
Advocates for voter ID laws claim to be concerned with making elections fairer. While this has a degree of inherent logic in it, electoral experts argue that the instances of voter fraud are “overstated”. An Australian government green paper released in 2009 found similarly, while the Australian Electoral Commission’s website notes that since major electoral reforms in 1983, the Court of Disputed Returns has not voided any election on the basis of fraudulent voting.
Even the Queensland government’s own discussion paper indicates that voter fraud was not an issue in past Queensland elections and that the introduction of voter ID laws could be “considered a disproportionate response to the risk”. So why was it included in this bill? And what will it actually mean for the state and the nation?
Many first world countries also use a form of voter ID laws, including Canada, the United States, Germany and the Netherlands. It has its uses, providing a degree of integrity to elections in emerging democracies, where fraud is undeniably more prevalent.
Some of the more serious criticisms of voter ID laws comes out of the US, where usually poor, black citizens risk being disenfranchised because of difficulties in obtaining suitable ID. While 34 states in the US now have a form of voter ID laws, locals are pushing back. In Texas, a photo ID law was blocked by the federal court which found “it imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor”. In other states such as South Carolina, the law has been watered down over time as a result of court challenges.
In the US, voting is not compulsory, and disabling a person’s right to vote (particularly if they aren’t likely to vote for the party who is imposing voter ID laws), makes the job of political parties in “getting out the vote” that much easier. A judge sitting in the United States Court of Appeal recently admitted he was wrong in his earlier support for the measure, and now believes that instead of preventing voter fraud, voter ID laws:
…suppress the vote by denying people who have a legitimate entitlement to vote access to the ballot box.
In Canada, there has also been some controversy surrounding voter ID laws and Muslim women needing to remove their niqab or burka to prove their identification before being able to cast a ballot.
Queensland has a poor track record of electoral reform. Prior to the Fitzgerald Inquiry and the changes that occurred as a result (including the establishment of an independent electoral commission), large scale misconduct existed at the most senior levels of the police force and politics.
Governments (both Labor and Liberal) used the electoral system as a way of shoring up support. In 1922, the Labor Party stacked the Upper House with a group of men – later known as the “suicide squad” – who voted to abolish the Legislative Council.
Electoral systems were also changed in order to benefit the party in power at the time. Malapportioned electoral districts were the norm. The community of Wugal Wugal experienced the only true gerrymander the state has seen, when the government-appointed commissioners removed their right to vote in their own electorate of Barron River, and placed them in the Labor electorate of Cook.
Later, Tony Fitzgerald would note that:
It has not always been obvious that the Electoral Commissioners were independent of the government…[t]he commissioners did not report to parliament, but to the premier.
Many Queenslanders fought long and hard for electoral reform in the years leading up to the Fitzgerald Inquiry. It is these memories that ought to prod Queensland to query the rationale for voter ID laws.
Australia has a long tradition of democratic innovation. Despite their flaws, universal franchise and compulsory voting remain the best protection against abuse. Of particular concern is how voter ID will affect Indigenous communities, the poor and the homeless. No matter how many forms of ID will be permitted, it is easy to imagine that on voting day, many otherwise eligible voters will not have their ID.
When change is mooted to something as important as the electoral system, the first question should be: what is the possible hidden agenda? One possible answer to this is removing compulsory enrolment and voting in the longer term. This will be easier to argue for when voting numbers decline – and in an era where many are already feeling disconnected from their governments, voter ID laws just might see to that.