OK, let’s talk about voter ID

As you’ve probably heard, the Australian federal government has introduced legislation that would require voters to produce identification prior to voting in federal elections, a move that echoes a tactic very popular with the Republican Party in the United States. It is associated there with efforts to suppress turnout among politically unsympathetic groups, notably the young, the poor and members of racial or ethnic minorities.

You can read the bill itself here. There’s plenty of good analysis around; here’s Antony Green, for example; here’s Peter Brent; here’s Graeme Orr; and here’s Michael Bradley just yesterday in Crikey.

I’ve said before that this government tends to make decisions on the basis of its tribal animosities rather than on any calculation, good or bad, of policy merits. (Here I am making the point back in 2014.) This decision, it seems to me, is even less further removed from policy considerations: it’s made not on the basis of the government’s own tribal feelings, but on derivative ones that it’s just copied from the United States.

There has been for a long time a small number of cranks in Australia who claim that our elections are rigged, the Australian Electoral Commission is corrupt and multiple voting is a big problem. No-one ever took them seriously, but since the corresponding claims, courtesy of Donald Trump, have taken hold of the Republican Party, the same ideas have been imported back into Australia, where they find eager followers in the Liberal Party branches and in the far-right parties, especially One Nation.

So from the Morrison government’s point of view, this legislation is a bone that it can throw to such people with no obvious downside. If it fails to get through the Senate it can hang around as another animating grievance; if it does pass, it will have the incidental benefit (by its lights) of disenfranchising a handful of its political opponents. Either way, it gives it some culture war credence to rally the troops.

In those terms, histrionic opposition to the legislation – of the sort that Kevin Rudd gave voice to the other day – just plays into the government’s hands. In the US, voter suppression is a real thing; voter ID laws are not just symbolic, but are intended to have a practical effect by thinning the ranks of those who would vote Democrat. (There is extensive debate over to what extent they actually succeed in that.) In Australia, however, the effect of this bill would be tiny.

Compulsory voting is part of the reason for that, but not the most important part. When it comes to voting, Australia has a culture of inclusion, of which compulsion is symptom as much as cause: polling places are plentiful, elections are held at weekends, postal and pre-poll voting is easy to access. And because of that culture, the government has not dared to propose anything very onerous. The voter ID can be almost anything (no photo is required), and those without it can still lodge provisional votes, which will be counted if they really are on the roll and haven’t voted elsewhere.

So while the Morrison government has a sort of reflexive ideological hostility to democracy, I don’t think voters are going to be easily convinced that it’s engaged in an attack on the integrity of the electoral process. Most people will probably see the ID requirement, if they think of it at all, as a benign reform; even if fraud is vanishingly rare, they will say, an additional precaution can still contribute to public confidence.

That’s not to say that the legislation is harmless. It would impose an unnecessary administrative burden, and no doubt a few voters (who are unlikely to be Coalition supporters) would be deterred from exercising their rights. But apart from the symbolic aspect – which is all most of its proponents care about – there is no comparison with the US. Which in turn is why the idea of a legal challenge, as suggested by Anne Twomey, is most unlikely to get off the ground.

The big threats to democracy, it seems to me, are elsewhere: in the corruption of public money being funnelled to political purposes, in the ability of politicians to lie with impunity, and in the system of single-member districts that locks out dissenting voices and (allied with compulsory voting) gives inordinate power to an unrepresentative minority of swinging voters.

Those things won’t be easy to fix, which is why we don’t hear so much about them. But supporters of democracy would do better to focus on them rather than obsessing about voter ID.


2 thoughts on “OK, let’s talk about voter ID

  1. Excellent analysis, Charles. I agree this is an initiative driven by the government’s tribal animosities. It also serves as a useful distraction from other issues and helps the government put its failures in other areas behind it.

    Liked by 1 person

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