Australia Fears voter ID laws before Parliament will disenfranchise most vulnerable

08:35  28 october  2021
08:35  28 october  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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The government wants voters to prove their identity before casting a ballot, to limit rare instances of double voting. (Supplied: AEC) © Provided by ABC NEWS The government wants voters to prove their identity before casting a ballot, to limit rare instances of double voting. (Supplied: AEC)

It is an element of Australian elections that takes some people by surprise.

Many reach for their wallet or purse as they approach the polling booth, assuming they will have to prove who they are as they head in to vote.

But in federal elections at least, it isn't necessary. You don't need to produce ID to vote.

It is a very longstanding rule in Australia, but it may soon change.

And it is already prompting a very heated debate — with accusations of disenfranchisement, voter suppression, discrimination and racism.

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Here's what's going on.

What are the current rules, and what might change?

Anyone who has voted in a federal election before will know it is generally (and thankfully) a very simple process.

When you turn up to a polling booth, an official will ask for your name and address, and check you off a very long list.

You will also be asked if you have voted before in the current election. Assuming the answer is no, you will be handed your ballot papers, and cast your ballot.

For years an argument has been mounted that the process is too open to abuse, and that a person can easily pretend to be someone else and cast multiple ballots.

Liberal Senator James McGrath, who chairs Parliament's Joint Committee on Electoral Matters, has argued more safeguards are needed.

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"If I want to go to my local surf club or bowls club I have to show a form of photographic ID," he said.

"If I want to have a lemon, lime and bitters in Brisbane on a Friday night after 10pm, I must show photographic ID and it is scanned in.

"Yet when I undertake my most important duty as a citizen — that is, voting — no ID is required."

The government argues ID is needed to drive a car, open a bank account or collect a parcel from the post office.

Under the changes it wants introduced, voters would have to produce an acceptable form of ID at the polling place.

That could include a drivers licence, passport, medicare card, power bill, debit or credit card, or an enrolment letter from the electoral commission.

If ID cannot be produced, a voter could have someone else who does have ID fill out a form saying the voter is who they claim to be.

Or a 'declaration vote' could be completed, where a voter signs a declaration with their ballot.

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The government says those measures will mean no one misses out on voting, even if they don't have ID.

Is multiple voting a problem?

In short, not really.

The Australian Electoral Commission estimates that during the 2019 election, the rate of multiple voting was 0.03 percent.

It told an inquiry into the election that multiple voting is "by and large a very small problem", and usually involves mental health issues rather than deliberate fraud.

And at least since the last major revision of electoral laws in Australia (in 1983), multiple voting has never disrupted any element of a federal election.

Labor's Tony Burke told parliament the government has found a solution, but is still looking for a problem.

"After the last election, after millions of Australians voted, the AEC then did a check to work out if there was a problem with the integrity," he said.

"Guess how many people ended up being prosecuted? Zero.

"So for the sake of fixing a problem involving no Australians, they want to stand in the way of thousands of Australians voting."

But the government argues the change is required regardless.

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Senator McGrath said the rules would add confidence to the system.

"Electoral matters must not only be fair, open and transparent, they must be seen to be so," he said.

"And asking for a form of ID is a pretty sensible, non-controversial reform."

Why is this so controversial?

Labor, the Greens and others argue not only is multiple voting not a problem that needs solving, it risks doing harm to the electoral system.

The concern is it may prevent people voting — particularly some of society's most vulnerable voters.

The opposition argues there should be as few barriers to Australians casting a vote as possible, and the laws would do little more than put barriers in place.

Labor's Warren Snowdon, who represents Lingiari in the Northern Territory (an electorate with many remote Indigenous communities) was scathing in his assessment of the idea.

"It's racist, it's discriminatory, and it's all about suppression," he said.

"This is a farce, an absolute assault on our democracy."

Labor suggests those most likely to turn up at a polling place without valid ID, and perhaps be put off voting altogether, are the homeless, the elderly and those living in remote communities.

As such, it suggests the solution to multiple voting risks disenfranchising many within the system that it seeks to protect.

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Has this been done elsewhere?

In making its case, the federal government has pointed to plenty of similar countries abroad with voter ID laws in place.

Canada, France, Sweden and Belgium are some examples it lists, along with many parts of the United States.

But to suggest this is a heated issue in the United States would be underselling it.

Ferocious campaigns have been fought for and against the laws, and according to the American Civil Liberties Union, 34 states now have some form of voter ID requirements in place.

It describes the laws as part of an "ongoing strategy to roll back decades of progress on voting rights."

"Voter ID laws deprive many voters of their right to vote, reduce participation, and stand in direct opposition to our country's trend of including more Americans in the democratic process," it argues.

"Many Americans do not have one of the forms of identification states consider acceptable for voting.

"These voters are disproportionately low-income, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, and people with disabilities."

Voter ID laws are also being pursued by the Conservative government in the UK, where they face similar arguments from the country's Labour opposition.

When will this happen?

Were the legislation to sail through the parliament, it could be in place before the next election.

That may not happen, as it could face hurdles in the Senate — with the government relying upon crossbench support to get the laws in place.

ABC election analyst Antony Green said if the government was serious about introducing voter ID laws, it might want to iron out any kinks first.

"Normally legislation of this sort would be sent off to an inquiry," he said.

"This is a major change to the way Australian elections are conducted — you would expect that it gets some sensible analysis before it is implemented.

"The way it is working at the moment - this could be passed by the end of the year, then we have no more [parliamentary] sittings and an election in March.

"They've got to get it right before they implement it."

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