Government Introduces Bill Requiring Voters to show ID to Vote

The Morrison government this morning introduced the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Voter Integrity) Bill 2021. (You can find the bill and explanatory notes at this link)

The bill’s provisions will require polling day and pre-poll voters to present some form of identification when they turn up to vote. ID will be checked against details on the electoral roll before ballot papers are issued. Presentation of ID will replace voters being asked for their name and address.

There is no requirement for photo ID. There are numerous permitted documents to prove identity, including driver licences, passports, Medicare cards, proof of age cards, birth certificates, citizenship certificates, credit cards, bank statements, utilities, letters from the Electoral Commission, tax assessments and several documents specific to Indigenous voters.

Voters without ID can also be vouched for if they are voting with a voter who does have identity documents. This provision deals with couples turning up to vote when only one has brought their driver licence.

Voters unable to pass the above tests will still be allowed to vote, but they will be directed to another part of the polling place where they will be issued with ballot papers and a declaration vote envelope.

On the envelope voters must write their name, address, and date of birth. Once completed, their ballot papers will be placed in the envelope and the envelope sealed. The envelope will be put aside for post-election processing.

In the week after the election, the declaration envelope will be checked against the electoral roll, and if details are correct, the ballot papers will be extracted and admitted to the count.

The government’s stated aim with these changes is to improve election integrity. The government stresses that this improved integrity can be achieved without any voter being denied the opportunity to vote.

Voter ID is politically sensitive given how it has been weaponised at US elections. This legislation is mild compared to what we have seen in the United States but will still attract a vigorous political debate.

I’ll leave it others to engage in that debate.

In this post I’ll examine what evidence there is that points to the need for this legislation, and also at whether the legislation can ensure voters are not denied the vote.

Even if the legislation is justified, can it be implemented safely in time for the next election.

But I’ll start by looking at the last time similar laws were introduced, in Queensland by the Newman LNP government. The laws were used for a by-election in 2014, and the state election in 2015, before being repealed by the newly elected Palaszczuk Labor government.

The Newman Government’s Voter ID Experiment

After the Newman government’s landslide victory, Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie released a discussion paper in January 2013 on possible electoral law reforms. These reforms included a proposal to require voters to present ID before voting.

I wrote a blog post on the review which you can find here.

After the consultation, the government did what it was probably always going to do, which was introduce a requirement for voters to show ID. The new rules were used for the first time at the 2014 Stafford by-election.

At the time I wrote this post on how the new laws would work, including the range of documents that could be used as ID. The documents were similar to those proposed under the Federal laws, though the Morrison government’s bill adds several other documents, and allows vouching or attesting which wasn’t allowed in Queensland.

Around the same time as these changes were introduced, Chris Berg, then a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, wrote on Voter ID and described it as a non-answer to a non-problem.

After the by-election I wrote on how the new laws worked at the Stafford by-election. 199 insufficient ID votes were cast, 0.9% of all votes. As I mentioned in the post, the Electoral Commission wrote to all voters ahead of the by-election and advised that voters should bring ID to make voting easier.

Speaking to a Parliamentary Committee in April 2015, Acting Electoral Commissioner Dermot Tiernan released some broad statistics on documents provided. Around 60% of voters presented the Electoral Commission’s letter as proof of ID, while around 33% used their driver licence.

Reliance on a letter from the Electoral Commission as proof of identity was a strange consequence of the voter ID law. If all voters are sent a letter, and the letter can be used as ID, you can’t help but think someone wanting to rort the election could simply engage in a bit of letter box theft.

There was a scare campaign ahead of the 2015 Queensland election that voters could not vote without ID (not true) which I discussed in this post.

The Newman government was defeated at the 2015 election, an astonishing result given the size of the government’s majority. Given the ID law was repealed shortly afterwards, the Electoral Commission Queensland (ECQ) engaged in no research on how the laws worked.

Again speaking to the Parliamentary Committee, Mr Tiernan provided some general comments on how the law worked. Across the state, 0.6% of votes were declaration votes through insufficient identity, though Tiernan also indicated that some votes had been incorrectly rolled in with totals of Absent and other declaration votes.

Mr Tiernan also revealed there had been a problem caused by the new laws, introduced at the same time as new roll mark-off software. At some polling places, voters were marked off the roll, and then directed to the declaration vote desk. As a result, when these declaration envelopes were processed, the voters were indicated as having already voted.

The Australian Electoral Commission will be rolling out new roll mark-off software at the 2022 election. If the same error were repeated at a Federal election, it could create a pool of suspected multiple votes that could be challenged. It raises the prospect that a close electorate could be put at risk by the late introduction of voter ID laws.

Lessons from Queensland

First, if you are going to legislate on voter ID, do it early so the laws have time to be implemented. You might even get chance to try them at a by-election.

Second, it is a major change to the way elections are conducted, so it is really worth a serious investigation into how the law might work, and whether the legislation is sufficient.

The government has pointed out that voter ID has been recommended by Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) inquiries into the 2019, 2016 and 2013 elections. That’s true, but it is a little strange to respond with legislation in the final sitting fortnight of the government’s third term.

Plus when you look at the JSCEM reports, the recommendations are a bit short of detail.

The relevant parts of the 2019 report quotes several submissions before pointing to a previous exploration of the subject in the JSCEM report on the 2016 election. The government never responded to the recommendations of the 2016 report.

In JSCEM’s 2016 report, there were again quotes from submissions to the inquiry, but it then pointed to the JSCEM report into the 2013 election as justification for introducing voter ID.

The 2013 JSCEM committee was chaired by current House Speaker Tony Smith and did a very thorough report on the 2013 election. It led to reform of the Senate’s electoral system. Copies of the final report that dealt with voter ID can be found at this link.

Chapter 5 of the report went into detail on voter ID and reviewed aspects of the Queensland experiment. In paragraph 5.58, the Committee mentioned the lack of clarity in the Queensland act on how declaration votes should be dealt with, before proceeding with a detailed discussion of submissions made to the inquiry. It then made a recommendation (Number 17) that similar voter ID laws be introduced for Federal elections. However, the recommendation only referred to addresses being checked with declaration votes, where the Commonwealth declaration vote envelope includes a date of birth.

So it is fair to say that only the 2013 JSCEM report has done detailed work on voter ID. Eight years later, you would expect such a major change to electoral procedure would warrant a newer inquiry more specific to the proposed law.

Another point to make concerns how to deal with the increase in declaration votes on polling day. No problems were reported at the 2015 Queensland election, but that was an election for a single chamber using optional preferential voting rules. It didn’t take long to vote so queuing wasn’t a problem, the it took time to complete the declaration envelope.

Federal elections are for two chambers, with full preferential voting in the lower house, and semi-optional preferences for a giant upper house ballot paper. It is going to take longer for each declaration voter to vote. Allowance will have to be made to prevent queuing.

There is also the issue of how declaration votes will be scrutinised after the election. Are they to receive the same level of scrutiny as absent and provisional votes?

Proof of Identity versus Proof of Address

In the proposed section 200DI, the request for a voter to give name and address is replaced by the voter presenting their ID. The provision allows the voter to be asked questions to resolve the person’s name or place of living, and further questions concerning whether the person with the ID is the same person as on the roll.

This comes down to the problem of proof of identity versus proof of residence. There are many people with driver licences that do not match where they are enrolled to vote. This comes down to some people having more than one address. Some voters also register their licence and vehicle at a different address to where they live for issues to do with insurance, registration and access to parking permits.

That the act refers to ‘proof of identity’, and that many of the documents will not have an address, points to the main purpose of the provision is about establishing who the voter is.

But it is clear that issuing officers may be required to ask further questions to resolve differences between addresses on voter documents and addresses on the electoral roll.

Voters sent off to cast a declaration vote will not have this opportunity to resolve addresses. Below is the declaration vote envelope used for provisional votes.

Declaration Vote Form

There is a lot of detail to be completed. I’d be interested to know how a remote indigenous voter with limited written English skills would deal with it.

How will it be processed? While it is easy to say no voter will be denied a vote, will their vote instead be denied entry to the count? Another question that could be answered by an inquiry into the legislation.

Multiple Voting versus Personation

While multiple voting keeps being tossed around as the purpose of the legislation, what it is actually about is personation, one person voting while claiming to be someone else.

All the available statistics on multiple voting concern instance of individuals voting more than once. That is difficult to do in countries like the UK and Canada that use precinct voting where you can only vote at one polling place.

In Australia, our laws on voting are guided by the use of compulsory voting. We allow votes to be cast at any polling place in an electorate, and allow liberal access to pre-poll, postal and absent voting. As a result, it is more likely that someone could, accidently or deliberately, vote more than once.

If voter ID were introduced, then unless electronic roll mark-off devices were connected together by wifi and the internet, you still could not prevent multiple voting.

Even then, you would have to allow declaration voters for people who say they haven’t voted but have been marked off as voted.

Which raises another security issue on trying not to open the electoral roll to the internet by linking up roll mark-off devices

At the 2019 election, there were around 2,000 multiple roll mark-offs from around 15 million votes. That’s about 13 per electorate.

I use the term mark-off because it is often clerical error that’s the cause rather than an elector voting more than once. A polling official marks off an adjacent name, resulting in one elector being reported as voting twice, and the next voter getting a non-voter fine. These mutiple mark-offs mostly get resolved in this way.

Most admitted multiple votes have specific causes. A common one is an elector voting in a nursing home, and then being taken out to vote again on polling day.

At the 2019 election, around 20 suspected multiple voters were referred to the Australian Federal Police. None were prosecuted, either for lack of public purpose or because there was a lack of evidence to prove the case.

As for proof of personation, there is none. If voters were voting in the name of someone who voted, it would be detected as a multiple vote. If it was done on behalf of a voter the miscreant knew would not vote, we have no way of detecting such a fraud. This is the sort of false vote that might be detected by voter ID, but we have no knowledge of its incidence.

The Electoral Act was recently amended so that a suspect multiple voter could have their name removed from the public electoral roll. Such a voter would still be able to vote, but they would have to cast a declaration vote, and only one declaration vote per person can be lodged. It is a mild imposition placed on the tiny number of multiple voters against the alternative of making all voters show ID.

Back in 2009 I wrote on a Court if Disputed Returns challenge in the Queensland state seat of Chatsworth. There were 30 multiple mark offs. The Court went through the detail of each and found 28 were clearly clerical error. The other two were confused elderly voters. It shows the level of record keeping at Australian elections that is the true guard against multiple voting.

So What’s the Point?

Electoral laws must always be kept under review. In the 30 years I’ve been working on elections, the way electoral rolls are maintained and used has changed, as has the way people vote with a shift from on the day voting to pre-poll voting.

Our electoral system relies a lot on trust, but then so does the functioning of our whole society. The last two years have highlighted how much we rely on out fellow citizens to act in the common good.

To say that checks on voter ID should never be allowed can lead you into a position where you deny any right to the Electoral Commission to question whether someone is a valid voter.

What is the minimum level of questioning of a voter is permitted by a polling official before it becomes voter suppression? That’s the basic question to be addressed when you discussing voter ID.

How that question is addressed in this country is conditioned by our use of compulsory voting. How can you have compulsory voting and ID laws so strict that a voter is prevented from voting?

The voter ID law being proposed by the government is very weak by international comparison. For most voters it requires only a small change that should not inconvenience them. But a small number could be inconvenienced by being forced to cast a declaration vote.

It is not US style voter suppression, though some will argue it is the thin end of the edge with more to come.

For all the arguments for or against voter ID, there are very good reasons to ask why it is suddenly so important in the final weeks of the government’s third term in office.

Can it be implemented by the AEC in time without the problems that occurred in Queensland? How will declaration votes be dealt with? How do you stop mistakes being made where voters are denied the vote, or be misled into thinking they can’t vote without ID?

Are particular groups of voters going to be disproportionally disadvantaged by these laws? Particular mention has been made of remote indigenous voters, a group who are already underrepresented on the electoral roll, and who already face difficulties casting and having their vote count as a result of where they live.

Voter ID law shouldn’t instantly be rejected. Nor should it be suddenly introduced without more discussion than the current bill has received.

Tens of thousands of casual polling officials need to be trained before the election. You would hate the late passage of voter ID legislation to result in officials making errors come election time.

And you would hate the law to be responsible to challenges to the result after the election.

14 thoughts on “Government Introduces Bill Requiring Voters to show ID to Vote”

  1. A very good discussion. It is troubling that such monumental changes have been introduced via a parliamentary bill so close to a election leaving minimal time for debate. It seems it has been planned thus. Several groups face being disenfranchised of a vote.

  2. This seems like another piece of bad governance arising from the Trump strategy to cast doubt on the validity of the electoral process. Troubling so close to an election and of very doubtful value. Will definitely discriminate against people in remote, poor, and non English speaking communities.

  3. Anthony, I’m one of those casuals who works on elections, and like it when people present ID, especially with surnames that aren’t in my lexicon. However, like you’ve stated, I often find that ID doesnt match the roll, especially the address.

    In my opinion, an Australia Card should come first, and used for all Commonwealth Services, and enrolment be linked to your Australia Card ID, and using that ID as part of wider Public Key Infrastructure debate compared with the clunky MYGOVID setup. This would also enable automatic enrolment, which would make AEC’s life easier. This then would allow for greater efficiencies in issuing ballot papers, even allowing for ID scanning for cross referencing, similar to what Singapore has.

    This is a big change, and any change should be looked at holistically across government. The current debate is not looking at the wider picture, but is merely a minor fetish, which on its own creates more harm than good.

  4. This legislation concerns me greatly. Raising doubt about the integrity of our election process is extremely dangerous. I hope it is defeated in parliament.

    1. I’m concerned for First Nations people who can’t meet the criteria eg ID, date of birth etc in English. In the proposed legislation how are these electors catered for?

  5. What -really- needs to be addressed is people/party members assisting / voting on behalf of.non english speakers, people with disabilities and those in old aged homes and mental institutions. – That is where the real voter fraud is perpetrated. (…outside of party preselection that is.)

    1. Dear Craven, I call BS. I have worked state and Federal election since 1988. As I rose in the ranks, EC officials have one function and one function only: to ensure that NO voter is disenfranchised. All EOs are trained to keep their politics at the door. I, myself, have my own views, but I have NEVER let that interfere with my duties, or if I was called to assist, I did as was the wish of the voter. In some cases, especially with voters of non-english backgrounds, their son/daughter assisted the voter. In some cases, they wanted the IOC to help them, if there was no other to help them. IN EVERY CASE, the wishes of the voter was always followed to the letter, and if there had been any changes in HOW we produced a vote that would be counted, this would always be re-explained to the voter. This is just sheer bustardry and misdirection mischief by the current Federal government.

  6. This is a very odd development as we have survived elections since Federation without this new process. I have not heard of any problem to date, and do not understand what problem this solution is to remedy.
    I will not be producing any ID and will go the labour intensive process to help create employment and overtime for the casual workers engaged in the process.

  7. The major deterrent to both multiple voting & to personation is the poor risk/return ratio. You have a small but non-zero chance of being caught out each time, but all you get out of it is a single extra vote. Even the closest seats are usually decided by a couple of hundred votes, so a lone individual is taking a chance at being punished severely for an act which will most probably not influence the result.

    Imagine you’re trying to lodge a false vote & you run up against an electoral officer who had crossed off the name of someone who had voted in that booth just twenty minutes before you tried. Would you like to bet that they wouldn’t remember it when they notice the name has already been crossed off?

    It would be a different matter if a major party organised a few hundred people to lodge false votes in an electorate where the result was expected to be very close. This would require a level of organisation which would be impossible to keep secret for long, though.

  8. Apart from voter ID being a non-solution to a non-problem, proposed I suspect by the government for political reasons rather than arising from any genuine concerns about election integrity, my fear is that this is a stalking horse for voluntary voting. That is, after a couple of elections where a small number of people are fined for not voting (due perhaps to failing to understand, or being discouraged by, the new system), the Coalition may use this as a pretext to make voting optional (again for real or perceived electoral advantage). The resultant reduction in participation in our elections would be a national shame, especially considering historic turnout rates in Australia.

    In my opinion, Australia does elections better than anyone else in the world; both turnout rate and the extremely low incidence of multiple voting attest to this. While there is always room for improvement, it is mind-boggling that we would follow the United States in how we conduct elections.

    No government that genuinely wanted as many eligible voters to participate in elections as possible (surely an important objective for any government) would propose this measure without extremely good reason, given the possibility of disenfranchising eligible voters. And 19 fraudulent votes out of 15 millions isn’t it.

    COMMENT: The Liberals who opposed compulsory voting dropped off the debate about two decades ago. Australian political parties are tiny by international comparison and would struggle to mount the sort of get out the vote campaign needed under voluntary voting, especially the Liberal Party.

  9. It would be interesting to know the numbers of voters that don’t have any form of ID?

    COMMENT: When similar laws were tried in Queensland, around 1% of voters did not have ID. We don’t know if any voters were deterred from voting because they thought you needed ID. The forms of ID allowed would mean most voters had one of the many types of ID allowed. I would think the groups least likely to have ID are remote indigenous voters and maybe older women and married women from certain ethnic or religious groups. Young people have been mentioned as one group likely to be disadvantaged, but young people are familiar with requiring proof of age ID so may not be as disadvantaged.

    1. I wouldve been one of the people disenfranchised by ID laws, for a number of reasons. My life and consequent paper trail have been confusing you could say.

      My mum wrote the wrong birth date on my birth registration, but I didn’t know til I was 16. Had two birth dates since then, I’d heard how to get it fixed but never got around to it. Moved house quarterly for a couple of years. Then I got married, changed my name. Moved some more. Then I got a passport. Then divorced. Moved some more. Changed my name by deed poll, then married the guy who gave me his name a year later. Moved some more, lost my license and found myself stuck with the wrong birth date, and my only photo id my passport with my first married name.

      Then when we applied to flinders medical centre for documents to support our application to fix my birth certificate we were told that records prior to 1984 had been committed to optical disc, and due to technical difficulties could not be accessed. Took nearly a year and a few hundred dollars but I’ve just gotten my corrected birth certificate this week.

      The thing is, when you call the electoral office to update or check on your enrolment you’re expected to know certain things about yourself. They can’t give you any prompts, no matter how good your excuses are – so when the AEC or the police or the library ask “what’s your date of birth” and I have to tell my life story to explain how it is I’m not entirely sure what they have recorded for me, it looks bad and is a deterrent in itself to engaging with the process of getting it fixed. This is just one persons story.

      The possible groups risking disadvantage are the same ones who always are : indigenous, ESL communities & refugees (who may not understand the requirements or the identity declaration forms) *homeless and semi homeless people* (I’ll get back to this in a sec) women escaping violence(leaving behind all possessions, having their id controlled, afraid to be seen at polling places for extended periods & traditional concerns with stalking and the electoral roll).Trans people (with id that doesnt “match” their appearance), people with substance use disorder, mental health issues, alcoholism ( many dont have standard ID documents, permanent addresses) sex workers & people already being targeted by the police/authorities (many deliberately carry no id or have no id due to their circumstances).. So basically everyone from lower socioeconomic groups. Which happens to be almost everyone the LNP has been thumbscrewing for the last 9 years, minus the pensioners and veterans..

      *Homeless and semi homeless people are on the increase in all states, and they come from all walks. LNP has done nothing to increase social housing, has stripped people of dignity with robodebt, ignored ACOSS’ recomendations and warnings about a crisis of homelessness, and now want to implement legislation requiring that people have all their ducks in a row in order to vote. Compulsory voting CANNOT coexist with harsh voter ID laws, and these may not be that bad, but its a foot in the door and where does it stop?

  10. Antony, what do you think the implications are for the seat of Lingiari? You mentioned in your Daly by-election wrap-up that increased Aboriginal turnout was partly responsible for the swing, and that for Labor to hold on with Snowdon’s retirement they will want to ensure the same in the federal election.

    It seems that, given these laws will suppress the vote of First Nations Australians, it will make it harder for Labor to hold onto Lingiari. The cynical side of me thinks this may be intentional, given that the bill was introduced (and thus presumably in planning) soon after the Daly by-election results. It also aligns with the election in which Snowdon is retiring.

    Why would the Morrison government want to introduce voter ID now? Its surely been on the table for years.
    Lingiari is the only electorate I can think of that these laws could have a significant influence on the result.

  11. Antony, one thing that I have difficulty finding an answer to. If a person does vote multiple times — and is detected — how does the official count get ‘fixed’ (if at all).
    It seems that there is nothing that would indicate which ‘ballot’ was filled out by a particular individual, so if someone voted 100 times, does that just mean that the count is potentially 99 more votes than voters?(assuming 100% voting in the electorate).
    Since the votes are not identifiable to a particular individual, surely it would not be possible to determine (with accuracy) which votes to *not* count.
    Would it be the case that only in the event of ‘enough’ multiple votes that the result could ‘theoretically’ have been changed, that the only recourse would be to ‘re-hold’ the election (for that electorate)?

    COMMENT: All the quoted statistics are of multiple roll mark-offs, not of multiple votes. There were around 2,000 multiple mark-offs in 2019, an average of 12 per division, but that doesn’t mean multiple votes. The closest victory margin was 371 votes so results wouldn’t have been changed.

    Australian elections are by secret ballot, and that means ballot papers are not numbered and cannot be traced back to a voter. Any multiple votes remain in the final count. If there is evidence of enough suspected multiple votes to put a result at risk, the Court of Disputed Returns could void the result and order a new election. A challenge to the Queensland seat of Chatsworth in 2009 provides evidence on the relationship between multiple mark-offs and multiple votes.

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