ELECTORAL REFORM: by Julia PatrickNews Weekly
The undetectable crime of electoral fraud
, November 13, 2010
Following the August 21 federal election, the Gillard Labor Government was trumpeting its intention to reform parliamentary procedure, a laudable move, although one we've heard little of since.
I would argue that this is putting the cart before the horse, and the real challenge for government is to reform electoral procedure to ensure that those elected deserve to be there in the first place.
Based on a system of honesty that no business would accept, our voting system is a scandalous shambles and leaks like a bucket with a hundred holes.
The most obvious opportunity for fraud is that no-one is asked to show identification to prove they are who they claim to be when they roll up to vote. These days, ID is required for most transactions, from registering Fido and hiring a bicycle to opening a bank account. Yet it is not required for those who will determine Australia's future.
After the South Australian state election of March 20, a family-run operation, calling itself the "Election Team", claimed to have voted 159 times. It was an unusual, but effective way of drawing attention to the fact that our voting system is tailor-made for fraud.
South Australian Liberal Opposition leader, Isobel Redmond, commented at the time: "As it stands, there's nothing to stop people going from polling booth to polling booth, even as themselves, let alone as some else. There have been elections won and lost on a single vote, so it doesn't take many (to change a result)."
South Australian Electoral Commissioner, Kay Mousley, admitted that there are no checks on polling day to stop individuals voting under false names and said she was taking the anonymous letter "very seriously" - a refreshingly honest, but unusual attitude from an electoral commissioner.
But taking things "seriously" is one thing; being able to do anything about them is another. It's no use the Electoral Commission boasting that there are penalties and jail for people who vote multiple times because our secret ballot is just that: secret. Those people can never be found; they and their votes are untraceable.
So did the Election Team, or other illegals, in the federal election alter the outcome? Nobody knows. Once a vote goes into the ballot box it's counted and there is no way of tracing or identifying it as coming from a phantom voter, a person multiple-voting in their own or a false name or voting from the grave. Electoral fraud is invisible crime.
The original "Australian ballot" of 1856, later adopted by Britain and other Western countries, had ballot papers numbered and the butts kept, so if an election were disputed the votes were traceable. But under some specious issue of privacy, numbered butts were gradually discarded and the limited secret ballot became a ballot of total and impenetrable secrecy.
Other changes followed, until what was previously a secure system has been eaten away to a shell under the guise of "reform".
In 1983/84, Labor Prime Minister Hawke and his protégé Kim Beazley abolished subdivisional rolls, claiming it would make it "easier" to vote, although no-one had said it was difficult.
This "reform" opened up all polling booths to a voter in his or her electorate (previously a person's name was on the roll in a strictly limited number of booths). This, indeed, made it much "easier" for those intent on malpractice to vote multiple times at multiple booths in their own or fictitious names. The Liberal Opposition, asleep at the wheel, endorsed the "reform".
To put a name on the electoral roll, all a person had to do was fill out a form from the post office with a false name (his cat or budgie?) at a false address (vacant block, caravan park?), post it to the Electoral Commission and, hey presto, on polling day a non-existent person would help their chosen party win power. As the late NSW state MP Alan Viney once said: "You can enrol your dog; he can't vote, but you can do it for him!"
On Queensland's Bribie Island, investigative journalist Bob Bottom found hundreds of false names at "addresses" on the sea-side of the street which would have been in the water.
In 2007, the Howard Coalition Government, perhaps wanting to be seen as "doing something", announced it was "tightening" the electoral act. Proof of identify before a witness would be required when putting your name on the electoral roll.
But the occupations and professions that qualify someone to be a "witness" embrace almost everyone, so unless you're wanted by Interpol, the change is a meaningless sham. Half a dozen people "witnessing" each others' false names, then each voting at several booths could change en election result.
To many, the idea of a "rigged" election in Australia is momentarily unsettling and leads immediately to a sort of unbelieving "it couldn't happen here" denial. After an election there may be a few rumbles about a name being crossed off before someone has voted, but relief that the election is over and party advertising now off the box, and a general turnoff towards politicians makes the whole thing pretty much of a yawn. "What can we do about it anyway?" is the approach. It's easier to forget it all and go paint the boat.
Those politicians heading for Canberra have other things on their minds and just heave a collective sign of relief : "I'm in the boat, push off". Those who miss out fear appearing to be sour grapes if they question the system that lost them power. They no longer have party backing and are out in the cold. Cost and time constraints make it unrealistic to mount a challenge.
Members of the joint standing committees on electoral matters that follow every election have repeatedly highlighted the system's gross inadequacies, but the attitude of that supposed guardian of our democracy, the Electoral Commission, has consistently been defensive and dismissive of the need for change.
As former MP Ted Mack put it: "If you ask the Electoral Commission to investigate its own running of the election, it will always come up smelling roses." The Howard Government, when it controlled the Senate, had the opportunity to legislate for ID at the polling booth, but never ran with the ball.
The Electoral Act is long and complicated and there's no room here to go into the opportunities for fraud in pre-poll, postal and provisional voting, or the "Mexican bank count" - people's eyes just glaze over.
But requiring an intending voter to produce ID is the first and simplest step to restoring some honesty to the system.
Others, including, Isobel Redmond, go further. She advocates physical markings for people who have voted. "The simple system is to get a black light-visible stamp that is put on your hand when you vote", she said, adding that she would treat voter identification "as a matter of some urgency" if elected. It's a pity that was not to be.
The desire for power is an extraordinary motivator. It drives people to do strange things and if something can be done, who would be so naïve as to claim it has not or will not be done?
As Labor's Graham Richardson so succinctly put it : "Whatever it takes...".Julia Patrick is a Sydney-based freelance writer on social topics. This piece is a revised version of her article in Quadrant June 2010. Quotes and information on the South Australian election are from the Adelaide Advertiser, March 27, 2010.