ELECTORAL REFORM: by R. Timothy PattersonNews Weekly
AEC ignores reports of electoral fraud
, June 11, 2011
Pauline Hanson’s claim that a counting error has denied her a seat in the New South Wales upper house has shone a long overdue light on the machinations of the Australian Electoral Commission, and the picture is not pretty.
The AEC is in independent statutory authority and for too long has operated as a law unto itself. Any examination of its modus operandi can only benefit us all in the quest for honest elections.
In supporting Hanson’s right to challenge the result of the March 26 state election, NSW Liberal Premier Barry O’Farrell said, “People have a right to challenge results if they believe there’s a case.” (ABC News, May 5, 2011).
But this is easier said than done. The Australian Electoral Commission, that supposed guardian of our democracy, has erected a firewall around itself and made it as difficult as possible for anyone to penetrate its defences and prove, as Hanson puts it, that our electoral system is “corrupt” (The Australian, May 6, 2011).
Normally, any charges against the AEC are investigated — by the AEC! Naturally, culpability is seldom acknowledged. As former independent 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 of roses.” (See video produced by the H.S. Chapman Society).
The AEC is consistently defensive and dismissive of any mention of fraudulent voting or its own questionable performance. Predictably, Commissioner Colin Barry denies Hanson’s claim of vote-counting error, asserting that “nothing suggests” that Hanson’s allegation “has any substance” (Sydney Daily Telegraph, May 18, 2011). The many honest and competent down-the-line officers in the AEC think twice before swimming against the corporate culture of denial.
Hanson claims that 1,200 votes for her were put in a pile of blank votes. The AEC’s track record shows she could be right.
Ballot-papers are known to just disappear, while complaints and statutory declarations of malpractice are ignored. Persistence can result in a curt “this matter is closed”.
On election night, poorly trained staff can ignore or fail to understand concerns reported by scrutineers. In 2007, a discrepancy of 201 votes between the House of Representatives and the Senate at one polling place in the NSW electorate of Bennelong was brushed aside by the electoral official, and the alert scrutineer who detected it was told, “We won’t worry about that.”
His statutory declaration was later ignored. Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens too often.
In the 1993 federal election, 53,000 people were given the wrong ballot paper. Among them were 415 people in Alasdair Webster’s NSW electorate of Macquarie. Webster lost his seat by 164 votes and there was evidence of fraudulent names on the electoral roll. But costs (about $6,000 a day), intimidation and restrictive time-limits to gather evidence of non-existent people voting made it impossible for Webster to challenge.
Every potential challenger comes up against the same road-blocks that Webster faced. Most don’t even try. The AEC holds all the aces.
The AEC presents itself as the bastion of our democracy, yet has consistently denied accusations of misconduct and persistently rejects the simplest step to reduce fraud that parliamentary committees have repeatedly recommended: that people show ID when they actually vote to prove they are who they claim to be. “Too hard”, “too expensive”, “too discriminatory” are the excuses wheeled out to do nothing.
It was only by accident that investigative journalist Bob Bottom found hundreds of people “living” on Queensland Bribie Island at “addresses” on the sea side of a street that would have been in the water.
The commission is always pushing to make voting “easier”, but at the expense of probity. Subdivisional rolls have disappeared and now a name is on the roll at every polling place in an electorate — there can be up to 60. “Multiple voting”, as it’s euphemistically called, in your own or a false name, has certainly been made easier.
Electoral fraud is an invisible crime, but instead of facing up to this possibility, the AEC likes to repeat the mantra that there is no evidence to support claims of widespread electoral fraud sufficient to have changed an election.
However, fraud does not have to be “widespread” to change a result. Seats can change by a handful of votes. Labor won the 1993 election by only 1,500 votes of which the total in 13 marginal seats was fewer than 500. Bass (Tasmania) changed hands by 40 votes. In 2007, McEwan (Victoria) was won by 31 votes.
It’s no use the commission claiming 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.
Once a vote goes into the box it’s counted and there’s no way of knowing if it comes from a person voting many times or a phantom voting from the grave.
Australia’s Electoral Act is tortuously complex. Shrewd and expensive legal counsel is needed to find a way through the minefield of obstructions.
It would be a win for democracy if the present challenger pulled it off and the AEC were forced to eat humble pie.
Julia Patrick is a Sydney-based freelance writer on social topics.