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Winter 2000 cover

National Observer Home > No. 45 - Winter 2000 >Articles

Electoral Fraud 

Charles Copeman

The potential for electoral fraud in Australia is virtually unlimited. The catch-phrase "vote early, vote often" is well-known as a direct reference to fraud, and "cemetery votes", which are votes cast in the names of dead people not yet removed from the roll, are understood throughout the world.

Australia pioneered universal suffrage - votes for all - and the compulsoriness of voting emphasises its importance. We pride ourselves in being a democracy, and we perform the essentially democratic processes to a high standard, certainly when compared with most countries of which we have knowledge. We not only send our parliamentarians to other countries to observe their elections, but we send teams from the Australian Electoral Commission to help in the conduct of elections.

We can be forgiven, therefore, for believing that we are in good standing in our electoral integrity, and that by and large we get the governments for which we have voted. When occasional incidents are publicised which suggest otherwise, we are comforted by thinking that we have a sound electoral system which is probably better than those elsewhere, and we know that we cannot expect perfection in the real world.

We would be very concerned indeed to be told on good authority that all is not well. To be told that while major fraud has never yet been proved beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law, at the very least almost every aspect of our electoral system is wide open to fraud by unscrupulous people. To be told that the close elections we have commonly had in recent years could all have been deliberately frauded to give government to other than the voters' choice. Moreover, to be told that of the fraud could not have been detected, and in very important respects much of it would not have been strictly illegal, even if deliberately dishonest.

We would be further concerned to be told that the Australian Electoral Commission has repeatedly denied that there is a potential for significant fraud, despite the fact that employees of the Commission have made submissions to the contrary to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters of the Federal Parliament. Furthermore, employees of Australia Post have explained publicly how it is possible to perpetrate significant electoral fraud through the postal system. We have read of major fraud in trade union elections, particularly concerning the union that postal workers are compelled to join. An enquiry into union elections and a number of court cases have concluded that fraud is widespread.

It is the purpose of this article to demonstrate that our political electoral system is wide open to fraud, and to put the question - Why are there so many opportunities available for large scale fraud? Whether there is fraud on a scale large enough to change the result in one electorate, let alone in a state, or in the nation, is merely one question. There is enough evidence of deliberate, significant fraud in union elections to leave us no room at all for complacency about the integrity of elections of any kind.

It is apparent that the Australian people have been lulled into a dangerous complacency about the most fundamental aspect of our government - the election of our representatives, whose policies profoundly influence our lives.

The Electoral Roll

It is compulsory for people to enrol who are eligible to vote. However this compulsion is not effective. A proportion of the people do not enrol and many are not detected and punished. All we do to enrol is to give a name and an address witnessed by a name of an enrollable person. We need only to have lived at the address for one month before enrolling. The Electoral Commission then sends a card confirming enrolment to that address. If the card is returned through the Post Office "address unknown", the name should be removed from the electoral roll. However that may not occur for some time.

No proof of identity or of address or of witness is required. The name may be true or false, the address may be true or false, the witnessing may be true or false. The card may not be returned to the Electoral Commission. Hence the name may remain on the roll because it is correct or because the card has been falsely not returned by some person who intercepts it at a real address or intercepts it at a false address or prevents it from reaching the address.

The Electoral Commission has no way of knowing that an enrolment is false, except when it makes specific enquiries, which may be only every two years. Responses to enquiries may be well nigh impossible to verify under the present system.

In other words, it is easy to make a false enrolment and to expect it to remain on the roll. Worse still, immediately an election is announced there is a period of one week when new enrolments are accepted in time for that election. In the three weeks generally remaining before the election it is effectively impossible for the cards from the Electoral Commission confirming enrolment to be sent and returned, so that fraudulent names can be removed from the roll. There is no opportunity at all to check that names, addresses and witnesses are not false, and that those named have lived at the addresses for at least one month preceding. Moreover we are left to assume that checking and removal of names are done efficiently and honestly by the Commission employees and that honest answers are given by the people to whom enquiries are put.

For the unscrupulous it is all too easy. It is an honour system almost beyond belief, the like of which no normal commercial enterprise could tolerate without inviting insolvency. In recent federal elections there have been as many as three quarters of a million last-minute enrolments. out of a voting population of 11 million. The Australian Electoral Commission states that the mobility of the population accounts for such a large number of late enrolments. However such a figure is much larger than any provided by real estate housing and rental evidence. Moreover the Commission admits it has made no surveys of post-election address validity to see if newly enrolled people are still at those addresses. By contrast we have seen recent federal elections sometimes won by a few hundred to a few thousand votes in the whole of Australia.

Clearly the Electoral Commission does not know how accurate the roll is.

This is not a matter of people voting several times in the same name (theirs, or more likely, others). This is a general matter of effectively untraceable fraud. And beyond this question of the enrolment process there are a host of questions about the compilation and accuracy of the roll.

Computers are used, and they make the work easier. However computers are not even only as good as the operators. We cannot see the data in the computer, or its programmes. It has been revealed that at least once a hacker has gained access to the electoral roll. How can we know that the roll is immune from deliberate fraud? We cannot.

In recent years centralisation of the enrolment process and the compilation of the roll for each whole electorate, rather than for each subdivision of each electorate, have rendered the roll effectively inaccessible for scrutiny by the residents.

In other countries the roll is publicly available, and can be read both alphabetically and by streets, so that electors can readily look at their own localities and see who is enrolled where. Why cannot we do this? Dare I mention that the British and the New Zealanders can?

The Electoral Voting System in Politics

Our voting systems are very complex and very confusing to voters. As a general rule, the more complex the systems, the more opportunities there are for fraud.

There are two major weaknesses. The first is that proof of identity is not required in any of the voting methods. On voting in person at a polling booth on election day a name is given, and the voting officer may not even wait to hear the related address, even though he may ask for it. He is required to ask if the voter has already voted. Would a fraudulent voter answer "yes"? The name is then crossed off on that copy of the roll. There may be hundreds of copies of that roll in use in polling booths in the electorate. The unscrupulous voter would not be likely to vote more than once in his own name, but would be more likely to vote in the name of some other person that he may know has already voted at another polling booth, or in the name of a person dishonestly on the roll. Or he may vote in his own name quite legally under our present system, having been at an address in the electorate for a month before enrolling, but not necessarily remaining in the electorate after the election, or even after enrolling.

Hence the opportunities to manipulate the numbers voting in a given electorate, illegally without fear of detection, or without reason to fear significant penalties, or even legally but dishonestly under our extraordinarily wide rules, are immense. Moreover there is very little chance that a vote once cast, whatever its legality, will be withdrawn later. In other words, votes are not cancelled as a result of subsequent investigations. Only if another election were called to take the place of the first one, and if that election were more strictly carried out, could the irregularity be corrected.

Under our absolute secret ballot system it is virtually impossible to cancel any votes because we cannot know which votes for which candidates are the illegal or dishonest ones. We cannot know who voted for whom, and therefore we cannot know which candidates' votes should be cancelled. Dishonest and illegal votes, which cannot under our system be traced, count as validly as legal votes.

When we turn to what we call "declaration" votes, where voting is not done on polling day at a polling booth in the electorate in which the person is enrolled, we find that systems in use are very lax, and the opportunities for fraud are endless, including fraud by officers of the Electoral Commission or by officers of the Post Office.

Counting, Scrutineering, Transporting and Computing

Errors in counting, deliberate or careless, lack of scrutineering supervision misadventures in the storage and transport of votes, and the opportunities for computer fraud or intervention in the computing processes, are all known to occur. They are largely untraceable, and therefore the extent of fraud cannot be known. Here we are not just noticing minor human errors which ought to be corrected by regular procedures and audits; we are facing fraudulent opportunities to change the voting numbers on a scale large enough to change the outcomes in individual electorates, and thus in the nation.

Let us now turn to the second fundamental flaw in the voting processes. When we vote we put our marks on pieces of paper given to us at a polling booth initialled by the officer of the Electoral Commission. There is no way to identify each piece of paper with the voter who marks it. This is the basis of what is called an absolute secret ballot. Other than the rare possibility of a handwriting expert positively identifying the voter, the vote is secret. As a result, once a vote has been cast, it cannot be identified in such a way as to be cancelled. If we wanted to design a system so easily frauded, we would have difficulty in doing better.

In Victoria in 1856 a Mr. H.S. Chapman drafted the world's first effective secret ballot legislation, which was widely adopted in Australia and in other countries. It was a limited secret ballot system. It was gradually superseded throughout Australia, but not overseas, by the absolute secret ballot system we have today, devised in South Australia in 1857. This absolute secret ballot system fails to deter fraud, as votes cast are quite untraceable after the election. The limited system is traceable, with court-supervised scrutiny, and thereby the extent of fraudulent voting can be assessed.

With our present untraceable absolute secret ballot we condone fraud. It is as simple as that. While instances of multiple choice voting can be identified from post-voting examination of the rolls and checking of addresses and occupancies, no-one - not even the Electoral Commission - can prove the extent of fraud. Nor can the Commission honestly deny that the opportunities for fraud are not being taken by the unscrupulous. The answer that the Commission should give to our criticisms is that "under the present system it is all too hard to know what is really happening". In some other countries each voting paper has a number and a number counterfoil, and the number printed on the electoral roll opposite the name of the voter is written on the counterfoil. This system is called the limited secret ballot. All the counterfoils, which do not show how the voters have voted, are put into the security of parliament until it is clear that no challenge to the vote is to be made. The voting papers are kept elsewhere under security. Even when a court wishes to investigate an alleged fraud it is not an easy exercise to match counterfoils with voting papers and with rolls in order to reveal how someone voted. How the person voted would not be the objective of the court initially. The court would be seeking to determine whether the person voted legally. What is important is for the court to be confident that the vote as recorded was the vote lawfully cast, and not the vote cast by someone else who was able to fraud the system, most likely in order to vote differently. The bottom line is that as voters we need to be assured that our votes are counted, but are not the subject of fraud by others.

Those who replaced the limited secret ballot with the absolute secret ballot may have been striving for absolute secrecy in order to protect the individual's right to vote unhindered by intimidation. However they were striving for a perfection fatally flawed, because they opened the system to untraceable corruption, providing a real incentive to engage in undetectable, and therefore unpunishable, fraud.

Evidence of Fraud

We hence have some appreciation of the multitude of opportunities for fraud, and why evidence of the extent of actual fraud is almost impossible to obtain.

Those people who prefer to believe that our present voting system is essentially honest will not want to investigate the system. The unscrupulous who are experienced in applying the techniques of fraud are engaged in a bid for power with no holds barred, and unfortunately many are obsessed with a hatred of their opponents which to them justifies any action. They are real people drawn from the broad spectrum of anti-social elements that are everyday news, but are not, for most of us, an every day experience. They are quite capable of frauding our electoral system, and they have their own codes of secrecy and rewards. Political power, with its immense opportunities for funding from the public purse, is the biggest prize in town when governments already provide nearly half of the spending in the nation. Unfortunately politicians of all parties, when elected, are so relieved to have won, and so pressed by direct demands on their time, that they are not interested to look for electoral fraud. The would-be politicians who lose elections. who may be very concerned that they may have been defrauded, are without standing, without resources, and are often too anxious to pick up the strings of another career without appearing to be bad losers. Worst of all, the process of objecting to an election result is a classic example of Catch 22. The onus of proof is on the petitioner, who is allowed one month in which to acquire evidence that the electoral system has made largely unavailable. Moreover the costs are beyond the capacity of most individuals.

It would appear that the system has been quite deliberately designed, not just to deter vexatious complainants, but to render virtually impossible anproper or capable investigation.

What evidence do we have of electoral fraud? The clearest evidence of electoral fraud is in union elections, even though there has been very little investigation. Union elections are generally by postal vote and voting returns are in the range of between 5 and 30 per cent. A large number of voting papers are not filled in by their recipients, and may easily become available for unscrupulous use by others. Double standards are shown by those who proclaim the virtues of compulsory political voting, but who are very keen to be able to manipulate a low voluntary vote in union elections. There has been evidence in union postal voting of deliberate interference in the mail by postal workers, not only through interference with ballot papers, but also with "how to vote" papers.

Evidence of fraud in political elections starts with the high volume of reliable anecdotal evidence. To the extent that fraud occurs, it is committed by people skilled in the processes. Complaints made to the Electoral Commission are commonly rejected, partly because the fraud is largely undetectable due to the untraceable nature of the system as described earlier. Even where a case is made for a new election, it has been easier for a court to order it on the basis of an "administrative lapse", such as in the relation to the votes of the twenty-two Australian soldiers from Mundingburra whilst in Rwanda, than on the basis of the much larger number of votes which appear to have been manipulated in that first election at Mundingburra.

The other evidence of possible fraud comes from the unexplained statistical trends and discrepancies which the figures published by the Electoral Commission disclose. Why are there occasions when votes for the House of Representatives seriously differ in number from those for the Senate? Why do so many people enrol immediately before an election? How many are false enrolments and how many are not still valid after the election (if they ever were before)? Why are so many people enrolled at some addresses - many more than would be expected to live in such buildings? Why have the percentages of eligible voters enrolled varied in such unexplained ways over recent decades? Why have the swings in certain marginal seats been so different from the swings in non-marginal seats? Has there been major computer fraud, particularly on the evening of polling day?

Within all these trends and discrepancies lie the opportunities to conceal the small numbers of well-targeted votes which can change a national result.

Those who have sought to get answers have been dismissed, often with disdain and almost always with the bland assurance that the system is free from fraud.

Correction of the Electoral System

Without going into the more esoteric aspects of voting, whether voting should be voluntary or compulsory, first past the post or preferential or proportional, there is much we can do straight away to correct the system.

Small is indeed beautiful when it concerns individual people - and voting is essentially individual. The smaller the roll, the more local it will be, and the more opportunity there will be for people to check it, if it is readily available in a street-wise form. Should not the system encourage natural curiosity to check the roll? Every change in recent years was designed to centralise and make the roll less available. Why? In some countries the electoral rolls are the responsibility of local government authorities. Why not in Australia? Our subdivisional voting system, limiting the places where we can vote, has been abandoned to make it "more encouraging for people to vote" without regard to increasing opportunities for fraud.

A fundamental deterrent to fraud is the scrutiny of other people - people who may not support the views or actions of those prone to fraud. There is a great deal to be done to improve the electoral rolls, but in particular the locality or precinct basis is essential. All the computers in the world cannot take the place of face-to-face relationships.

Enrolment should be in person, with verified identification of person and of address. Enrolment should not be possible after an election has been called. The scope for postal declaration forms of voting should be drastically reduced,and "good cause" should be required to justify voting by any means other than by personal attendance at the appropriate polling-booth on election day. The scrutiny of postal systems needs great improvement. Voting should require the presentation of evidence of identity. The limited secret ballot system should be reintroduced to give traceable voting. Scrutiny throughout the counting, transport, compilation and computing of votes should be greatly improved.

The Australian Electoral Commission should not have responsibility for the compilation of the electoral rolls. In all respects that Commission needs a massive shake-up. Use of Australia Post should be minimised. There is too much opportunity for fraud in an organisation which has been discredited insofar as its own elections are concerned.


These are the immediate actions that need to be taken. There should be a simple message from the people of Australia that the electoral system must be cleaned up. It is too fundamental to democracy to be left as it is.

In February 1996 Mr. Alan Jones launched a book by Dr. Amy McGrath, a Sydney historian, called "The Frauding of Votes". This book sets out in considerable detail the weaknesses of our electoral system, and describes many of the actions needed to reform it.

Following the launching of the book a number of concerned individuals formed the H.S. Chapman Society,1 named in honour of the man who designed the world's first limited secret ballot. The Society is committed to raise the level of public awareness of the weaknesses of our electoral system, by making Dr. McGrath's book widely available, and by conducting forums for interested people. Those who are concerned by these very important matters are invited to join the Society and to pursue a necessary reform of voting procedures in other ways.

1. The address of the H.S. Chapman Society Inc. is: G.P.O. Box 2391, Sydney, N.S.W., 2001.



National Observer No. 45 - Winter 2000