HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 1 DECEMBER 2021
Ensuring the integrity of our election systems is a bipartisan objective. We know that there have been attempts to hack into election systems. The Economist magazine discusses the way in which this particularly affects the United States, in the context in which voting machines are used. Even when those voting machines are air-gapped—that is, not connected to the internet—there is a risk of malicious actors loading malware onto them and then managing to bypass logic and accuracy tests. There is also a risk of attacks which target voter lists, attempting to change voter lists and, therefore, undermine confidence in democracy. We've seen attempts to influence elections electronically in other ways, as well. A Russian news agency with close ties to the Putin government launched a so-called ‘news’ website called USA Really, which published a stream of articles favourable to former President Trump. Those attempts worked alongside attempts to influence the last three US elections by foreign actors using social media platforms.
The bill before the House, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Assurance of Senate Counting) Bill 2021, provides some measures that will ensure that Australia's first-rate electoral system is protected. It provides for the Electoral Commissioner to arrange for an independent body accredited by the Australian Signals Directorate to conduct a security risk assessment of the Australian Electoral Commission's computer system and provide a report to the AEC, which the AEC will then publish on its on its website. This is critical for Australia, given that our electoral system has long been regarded as best in the world.
Australians see voting not merely as a right but as a responsibility. Since 1924 we've had compulsory voting, which has seen us have one of the highest turnout rates in the advanced world. Compulsory voting also ensures that voting is representative. In voluntary-voting countries it is systematically the case that lower-income and more-disadvantaged voters tend to turn out in smaller numbers, so the result of an election doesn't represent truly the view of those who could potentially have cast their vote. Australia put in place the secret ballot, which other countries call the 'Australian ballot'. Australia has also pioneered robust electoral systems to ensure that the integrity of our voting system is maintained. Indeed, the ballot booth, according to Judith Brett’s tremendous book From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage, is a great Australian invention. But there are other ways in which elections can go wrong as well, and one of those is if voters have to spend too long waiting in line. Analysis by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study looked at how long voters had to wait to vote in the 2016 presidential election. Among non-whites, 73 per cent said they had to wait in line to cast their votes, compared to 60 per cent of whites. That gap grew even larger the longer people had to wait. Non-whites were 40 per cent likelier than whites to say they had waited longer than half an hour to vote. So that racial gap naturally affects those who finally get to cast their vote. If you're working a part-time job or caring for multiple children, you may not be able to stand in line and wait your turn.
What could blow out the length of time that people wait in line? The coalition's proposal to require that everyone who casts a ballot first produce identification. That requirement, when first implemented, would be almost certain to gum up the works of Australia's election system. Australia doesn't have a problem with multiple voting. The number of incidents in the last election was a couple of thousand. The number of prosecutions out of that election is zero. Largely, multiple voting arises because of confusion among a small number of vulnerable Australians, rather than through a malicious attempt to subvert the system. But the effect of voter identification requirements is to ensure that the lines are longer and the most disadvantaged don't turn up. Contrary to what members opposite have been arguing, it is going to be an imposition on people if they have to fill out a statutory declaration. Many will simply choose not to bother if that's the obligation. So I would urge the government to back down on their proposal for voter identification laws and to recognise the benefits that come from Australia's electoral system, in which simplicity is prized and we have one of the highest turnout rates in the world.
This bill before the House is a perfectly sensible measure and enjoys bipartisan support. The concern about the hacking of election material is a real one. Inevitably, as electronic voting comes online, we're going to have to become better at managing these systems. Electronic voting has natural advantages in ensuring the integrity of the outcome, but, without very rigorous systems in place, we can't be sure that that will work. This bill will provide increased assurance to voters and to candidates of the veracity of the AEC's systems.
But we need to also recognise there is much more that we could do to improve the integrity of the system. We still have a turnout rate among Indigenous Australians that sits around half, according to one of the AEC's reports. A 50 per cent turnout rate among Australia's First Nations people simply isn't acceptable. I have long believed that voter turnout should be one of the Closing the Gap targets. We should aim to close the voter turnout gap in Australia because having Indigenous Australians contribute to the democratic process should be seen as important for all Australians. We, of course, need a national integrity commission. That too would improve the standing of Australia's politicians. And we need to have real-time disclosure of political donations and the donations disclosure threshold brought down from its currently indexed $14,500 to a fixed $1,000, to ensure that political donations are transparent for all to see. The AEC deserves more resources to increase enrolment and turnout of voters. All of these things would improve the integrity of Australia's voting system and would greatly strengthen an already strong democracy.
On the question of voter identification, we don't need to merely speculate; we have the lived experience of the Queensland 2015 election, where voter turnout was the lowest it had been since 1980 and the lowest turnout in 12 state elections. Many voters were turned away; many were deterred from turning up at all. That's because holding an election in which you require voters to produce identification is a logistical nightmare. In the current context, it would mean that in the first national election after the COVID pandemic hit we would be attempting to train 100,000 or so AEC workers in identifying appropriate identification. This is a massive logistical task.
As the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has noted, voter identification laws might 'reduce public confidence in the electoral system and discourage some voters from voting'. The committee also noted that it has seen:
… no evidence of, or concern about, a lack of public confidence in the integrity of the electoral system or any evidence of voter impersonation.
It also said:
… additional requirements imposed before a voter can cast their vote engages and may limit the right to take part in public affairs and the right to equality and non-discrimination.
Cassandra Goldie, the CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service, said:
Requiring voter IDs would hit hardest those people who already face barriers to voting—people who are homeless, people living in remote communities, First Nations people, recent immigrants, younger people.
In conclusion, I spoke earlier this week on a report handed down by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics. I acknowledged Nicolette Cilia, who drafted that report. It was remiss of me though not to acknowledge the entire splendid secretariat of the House of Reps Standing Committee on Economics, of which I'm privileged to be the deputy chair. Iva Glisic; Danton Leary; Lachlan Wilson; Nicolette Cilia; Jenny Luu; Casey Mazzarella, before she moved on to another role; and Jazmine Rakic have all provided excellent support to the House of Reps Standing Committee on Economics. We are extraordinarily privileged to have them working for the committee, as, in general, we in this place are lucky to be served so well by committee staff and others who work in the building.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.