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Wednesday, 11 May 2011
Page: 2217

Senator WORTLEY (South Australia) (09:39): I rise to address the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Provisional Voting) Bill 2011. This bill amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984. The bill will repeal the requirement for provisional voters to provide evidence of identity before their votes are admitted to preliminary scrutiny. It will implement recommendation 2 of the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters on the conduct of the 2007 federal election and matters related thereto. This measure was also one of the government's 2007 election commitments.

A provisional vote is a type of declaration vote that can be cast by an elector at a polling place on polling day. As with all declaration votes, a provisional vote is sealed inside an envelope and on the outside is written the voter's details, including their name, address, date of birth and signature. A provisional vote is cast when the voter's name cannot be found on the certified list, the voter's name is marked off the list as already having voted, the voter is registered as a silent elector or the voter has cast an absent, early or postal vote. Broadly speak­ing, a provisional vote is used when an elector arrives at the polling booth but the official cannot find their name on the electoral roll.

It is of great concern to the Gillard government, which values and indeed nurtures the right of all Australians to vote, that over 27,000 provisional votes were rejected at the 2007 federal election. The total number of provisional votes was 167,500. At the 2010 federal election there were 203,488 provisional votes cast in total and 28,065 of these were rejected because the voter did not provide evidence of their identity by the first Friday following the polling day. Further examination by the AEC of the 28,065 provisional vote envelopes rejected because no proof of identity was provided showed that in 12,227 instances the name of the voter was later found on the certified list. This is not surprising if you consider that there can be miscommunication between the voter and polling official or that a simple mistake can be made by the polling official in not finding the voter's name on the certified list. It is unacceptable that at both the 2007 and 2010 elections thousands of provisional votes were rejected in the very preliminary stages of processing because voters did not provide the evidence of identity by the first Friday following polling day.

The Australian Electoral Commission has also noted that the admission rate for Senate provisional votes fell from 62.23 per cent in 2004 to 25.14 per cent in 2007. It is a sober­ing thought that, if the 2004 provisional vote admission rate prevailed in 2007, an additional 62,186 Senate votes would have been counted in that election. So the votes of 62,000 Australians were not counted in the Senate voting. That is a lot of Australian voters who did not get a say in the new parliament. Their votes were not counted because the current Electoral Act specifies that, if the required evidence of identity is not provided by the deadline, the envelope containing the ballot papers is excluded from preliminary scrutiny.

So why don't Australian voters provide their proof of identity to the AEC so their votes will be counted? There are many reasons why voters do not provide evidence of identity by the deadline and this does not necessarily indicate any attempt to vote fraudulently. Unlike for many of us here, their lives do not revolve around politics. They are working, raising families, paying mortgages, studying and trying to make ends meet. Many people cannot take time off work to find an AEC office and provide their proof of identity. Many would feel that they have done their duty by turning up on election day to vote. It is the current system that has let them down. It is Liberal Party philosophy which has let voters down. The Liberal Party, of course, is the one which abolished the seven-day close of rolls grace period, thereby preventing thousands of young people from getting on to the rolls and being able to vote in 2007. This government is dedicated to removing barriers to electoral participation, to modernising enrolment and electoral processes and to responding to the increased demand for early voting services. The Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott, has shown that he will take any opportunity to oppose democratic reform and to attack Labor's belief in a modern and fair electoral system.

The amendments in this bill will address the issue of exclusion of otherwise perfectly valid votes from further scrutiny. It is important that amendments are in place for the next by-election, referendum or general election. At present only provisional voters, and no other declaration voter, have to provide evidence of identity in order for their vote to be accepted. This leads to inconsis­tency of treatment of different types of declaration votes. For example, a voter who is eligible to vote and has a provisional vote rejected at preliminary scrutiny only because of failure to provide evidence of identity would have had his or her vote counted if they had instead cast an absent vote, postal vote or pre-poll declaration vote. There is no reason to treat otherwise valid provisional votes differently from other forms of declaration voting.

The current requirement for provisional voters to show proof of identity by the Friday following the poll was put in place by the Howard government. One could question whether it was for honourable reasons that the Liberal government introduced changes to this legislation. The intent was not to improve the integrity of the electoral roll, but rather, one could guess, to assist the Liberal Party in the 2007 and future elections. Before the Liberal government changed the rules, the logical system of matching signatures was also applied to provisional votes. If an Australian voter applied at the polling booth and signed the outside of the envelope to say he was the person who voted, then AEC officials took this back to the commission and they checked it against the signature of the elector which exists on the original or subsequent enrolment forms held by the AEC.

What this government seeks to do is to restore that system through this bill because it is blatantly unfair that, as a result of the Howard government, provisional voters are treated differently from those who cast a postal vote or an absentee vote. Why should provisional voters face a greater likelihood of being disenfranchised? Why should they have to jump through more hoops simply to have their votes counted? Those opposite still agree with a requirement that provisional voters jump through hoops to have their vote counted. This is despite the detrimental effect on thousands of provisional voters. On the other hand, I am pleased to say that the Australian Electoral Commission supports the federal govern­ment's repeal of the identity requirement. In its submission to the inquiry of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the 2010 federal election and matters related thereto, the Australian Electoral Com­mission recommended that the requirement for production of evidence of identity by provisional voters should be repealed.

The government's Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Provisional Voting) Bill 2011 will ensure all voters who cast declaration votes are once again treated in a fair and equitable way. It will restore the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to its pre-2006 status where the law, custom and established practice accepted the voter's signature as proof of identity. I commend the bill to the Senate.