The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Australia leader pushes voter ID law, courting right-wing support before election

A dog sits outside a polling station at Dee Why, Sydney, in 2019. Australia is due to hold its next federal election early next year. (James D. Morgan/Getty Images)

SYDNEY — Election day is easy in Australia. There’s no scramble to drive people to the polls because they’re already required to vote. And when they arrive, citizens simply state their name and address before casting their ballot and then sticking around for a “democracy sausage.”

But with the next federal election just a few months away, the conservative government is aiming to throw an American-style spanner into the — some say overly — streamlined process.

With polls showing a tight race, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is using what could be the final two weeks of Parliament before the election to try to push through contentious changes, including a voter identification requirement that has enraged opponents and alarmed voting experts.

Morrison has said the bill is a common-sense security measure akin to those in other countries, including Canada and the United States.

But opposition lawmakers have called the voter ID legislation “racist,” “Trumpian” and unnecessary, accusing the prime minister and his supporters of fueling panic and misinformation about the integrity of the election process.

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“We have a system we should be very proud of,” Labor Sen. Tim Ayres said last month when the bill was introduced. “Why we would want to insert U.S. segregationist Jim Crow legislation to corrupt the Australian ballot process, I have no idea.”

Australia’s electoral system is often considered among the best in the world. Elections are overseen by a national commission, and enrollment and voting are required by law, with scofflaws subject to a small fine. More than 90 percent of eligible Australians routinely cast a ballot in federal elections compared with around 60 percent in the United States.

Despite the high turnout — or perhaps because of it — evidence of voter fraud is “vanishingly small,” according to the Australian Electoral Commission, with zero prosecutions for the offense after the last election in 2019.

“We have some of the highest [voting] rates and cleanest rolls in the world because we have compulsory enrollment,” said Graeme Orr, an elections expert at the University of Queensland, who called the voter ID bill a “solution in search of a problem.”

“With compulsory voting, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t vote so you can vote in their name,” said Antony Green, chief elections analyst for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

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The debate over voter ID has bubbled along for years in Australia, Green said, but the measure is being put forward now — along with a bill on religious discrimination — as Morrison aims to court far-right voters who, under the country’s preferential voting system, could determine whether he clings to power.

Morrison’s conservative Liberal Party has slipped in the polls recently as he has been accused of lying by the French president and widely criticized for inaction on climate change. Railing against alleged voter fraud has provided a bit of counterprogramming.

“People who go to vote should be able to say who they are and prove who they are in a democracy,” he said in Parliament last month. “You’ve got to really ask yourself why those opposite don’t want people to have to prove who they are when they vote.”

Morrison’s critics have accused him of trying to suppress votes, especially among the homeless and Indigenous people, who are more likely to lack the necessary identification.

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“This is pretty much a demolition of democracy,” Sen. Malarndirri McCarthy, a Labor politician and Indigenous woman who represents the Northern Territory, said in an interview. “It’s incredibly difficult for First Nations people to be able to have the ID that is available when it’s required in our remote and regional areas of Australia, particularly here in the Northern Territory.” The bill, she said, was “completely discriminatory” and “more about Scott Morrison holding onto power than enabling power among the voters of Australia.”

Experts say the bill, however, is far from the strict measures introduced over the past two decades in some U.S. states that require specific types of government-issued photo ID. The Australian legislation would allow Indigenous land council documents and non-photo identification such as a utility bill or credit card. People without any ID can vote if someone else attests to their identity, or they can cast a provisional ballot.

“In America they’d laugh at this as a ‘voter suppression law,’ ” said Green.

“It’s at the soft end of voter ID,” said Orr.

Yet, both said pushing through the bill a few months before an election, when the pandemic will already cause anxiety and delays, would be a mistake. And instead of reinforcing faith in Australian elections, the bill could undermine it, they said.

“Elections run on trust, to a certain extent, and Australians trust their electoral system,” said Green. “The government says it needs to bring in this bill to ensure people can trust the election results. Well, the fact that they are introducing a bill asking for ID raises the question: What’s wrong with the current election? This bill does introduce more doubts about the election than just carrying on the way we’ve always gone.”

There is also fresh doubt about the fate of the voter ID and religious discrimination bills, however, as Morrison faces a potential revolt.

In recent days, a handful of senators from the prime minister’s conservative coalition have said they might block the two bills over their demands for a law against coronavirus vaccine mandates. Morrison opposes an anti-mandate bill but has also been criticized for expressing sympathy for anti-vaccine protesters.

Even if the voter ID bill passes, it could be short-lived. On Tuesday, Labor Sen. Don Farrell said that if his party wins the election, which must be held by May, its first action would be to repeal the law.

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