Some Important Questions The Govt Hasn’t Answered About The Marriage Equality Plebiscite

What a mess.


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We’ve been talking about the postal plebiscite on marriage equality all week, but thanks to the incredibly rushed process behind it there’s still a bunch of details missing.

Here’s what we know for sure:

  • It will be run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics
  • It’s voluntary.
  • The deadline to enrol to vote or update your address is August 24.
  • Ballot papers will be mailed out from September 12.
  • Ballot papers need to be returned by November 7.
  • The results will be delivered on November 15.
  • The result will be non-binding on politicians.

But there’s plenty of stuff that’s still up in the air, which is pretty concerning given how soon this whole thing will kick off. Let’s take a look at the messy details.

What Campaign Rules Will Apply?

At this stage… none. During normal federal elections there are a whole range of rules governing political campaigning, including laws around donations, transparency and authorising campaign material so the public knows who is behind advertisements.

But because this isn’t an election being conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission, the rules don’t apply. It’s pretty much a free for all. The government has said it’s willing to rush through new laws to set some ground rules but we don’t know what they’ll look it and there’s no guarantee they will go ahead.

Can You Vote From Overseas?

Yes, but it’s pretty tricky. You’ll need to register an overseas address with the AEC. Which is fine if you’re living at a fixed address but if you’re travelling it isn’t that helpful. During federal elections overseas, voters can usually rock up to an Australian embassy or consulate to cast their vote. But that service won’t be available for the plebiscite.

So what are travelling voters supposed to do?

Who’s Going To Stop Electoral Fraud?

Casting a ballot in a federal election is a pretty straightforward process. You rock up to the polling booth, get your name marked off, fill in your ballot and drop it in the box. Rates of voter fraud, or people impersonating other voters, are pretty low but there are laws to deal with it.

At this stage there are no laws to stop voter fraud in the plebiscite. The ballot papers won’t have any personalised data so there’s no way to stop people voting multiple times. If you’re accidentally sent someone else’s ballot, because they’ve moved house without updating their address, there’s no way for the ABS to tell if you sneakily filled it out on their behalf.

Sounds a bit dumb, hey? That’s because it is.

Will Politicians Be Able To Vote?

This is a fun one. Because the government has been very hasty in getting this vote off the ground, they seemed to overlooked a few finicky but highly important details.

There are a group of voters on the electoral roll known as “silent electors”. Silent electors are voters who have chosen to keep their address suppressed. Normally they’re high-profile people like politicians and celebrities. The list of silent electors is held by the AEC and they’re prohibited by law from sharing it with anyone else.

But the AEC isn’t conducting the postal vote. The ABS is. And they don’t have the addresses of silent electors. At this stage it’s unclear how the AEC could legally hand over that information to the ABS, meaning politicians might miss out on their chance to vote. Kind of ironic isn’t it.

The minister responsible for the plebiscite, Mathias Cormann, has said the ABS will make “further announcements as soon as arrangements have been finalised”.

Are 16 Year Olds Eligible To Vote?

The voting age in Australia is, obviously 18. But the Electoral Act allows 16 and 17 year olds to add themselves to the roll, to make sure they can vote as soon as they turn 18.

The postal plebiscite is also supposed to be a survey of eligible voters — that is, people over the age of 18 who are on the electoral roll. But have a look at what the official direction from the government to the ABS actually says:

It’s completely valid for 16 and 17 year olds to register to get on the electoral roll. And, according to the government’s own direction, that’s enough to make them eligible to vote in the postal plebiscite.

One of the country’s most respected constitutional lawyers, Professor George Williams from the University of New South Wales, agrees.

So yeah, it seems like that due to some sloppy wording the government has accidentally enfranchised a whole bunch of teenagers. Nice.

Update: At 5:23 pm the AEC responded to our enquiries by stating they had “no comment” regarding the eligibility of 16 and 17 year olds. They pointed out the ABS was running the survey and suggested we contact them or Mathias Cormann, the minister responsible.

At 5:38 pm the AEC released a public statement saying 16 and 17 year olds would not be eligible to take part in the survey. Cormann’s office also sent Junkee a statement echoing the AEC’s views.

Feature image via Dominique A. Pineiro/Flickr.

Osman Faruqi is Junkee’s News and Politics Editor. He tweets at @oz_f.