Opinion archive 2014Other opinion pieces
Graeme Orr and Emily Howie
Queensland’s voter ID laws are an unnecessary experiment
11 March 2014
Queensland is about to conduct an experiment with electoral democracy. The Newman government is legislating to make voters present identification at polling places.
However, evidence reveals that voter ID at the polls is unwarranted and unnecessary. Electors already have their identity witnessed when they enrol. Australia has a well-managed and well resourced electoral system. Lists of voters are constantly cleansed, as information from government agencies is used to remove people as they die or move address.
The votes of tens of thousands of vulnerable people are threatened by voter ID requirements. Those most at risk are elderly and young voters, people in remote rural regions, Indigenous people and the homeless.
In the US, where 34 states have passed similar laws, voter ID laws have produced more problems than expected. Even the judge who once wrote the lead judgment defending Indiana’s photographic ID laws now says he got it wrong. In hindsight, he says that voter ID laws suppress the vote and don’t prevent fraud.
To the Queensland government’s credit, it says it won’t insist on photographic ID. You will however need to carry a passport, drivers licence, utility bill, official medical card or a letter from the Electoral Commission of Queensland.
Even so, such provisions will still create barriers to voting for some groups who are less likely to have ID. For example, evidence shows that Aboriginal people are less likely to have a drivers licence or a birth certificate.
If people without ID are meant to use the Commission’s letter as ID at the polls, they must first receive the letter and understand that it can be used in that way. Aboriginal people in remote areas and people experiencing homelessness will be less likely to receive these letters. People from non-English speaking backgrounds may also not be aware that the letter serves as a form of ID.
This law will cause headaches for electoral staff and citizens alike. Will part-time polling staff interpret the ID requirements in the same way across this vast state? Will people remember to bring the right ID?
Imagine an elderly or disabled voter, or a rural elector with a one hour round trip, for whom travelling to the polls is a considerable effort. Arriving at their polling station only to be told they don’t have the right ID and can go home to retrieve it if they want to preserve the right to know their vote will count.
The government concedes that people without ID should be allowed to make a signed and witnessed declaration, so their vote may be considered later. The problem with such ‘declaration’ voting is that you fill in extra forms, but you never know if your vote was rejected or counted.
A great increase in declaration voting will create delays at polling stations, and in publishing election results. Worse, close results will hinge on arguments between party activists and electoral commission staff over which votes to admit.
Legislating to require voter ID risks more than just preventing some Queenslanders from voting at the next election. Once the law is passed, there is nothing to stop any Attorney General from introducing further limitations as to what ID can be used.
At the end of the day, voter ID law is overkill. There is simply no evidence of systematic attempts to defraud elections in Australia.
Australia has had compulsory enrolment and voting for a century. Queensland’s last Liberal government actually pioneered compulsory voting. Strange then that this government would act to lock people out of it.
Compulsory voting has kept our political system more inclusive than other countries. Making voting a duty means the system should encourage participation, not erect barriers to voting.
Voter ID laws are an American obsession we do not need to import. They are a solution in search of a problem, which if passed will create new problems, especially for Queensland’s most vulnerable.
Graeme Orr is a professor of law at the University of Queensland and Emily Howie is director of advocacy and research at the Human Rights Law Centre.