Banning how-to-vote cards weakens democracy

The Queensland government is considering a ban on how to vote cards outside polling booths. This is madness – a clear and obvious threat to free expression in an electoral democracy. Australian elections are already incredibly highly regulated.

There are rules governing the timing of election advertisements and their format, rules governing spending, rules governing donations, and rules governing electoral material.

In my book I outlined the tenuous arguments made by electoral authorities in favour of these constraints. The Queensland government’s proposals are even less compelling. Democracy ought to be rowdy and enthusiastic. This is a sign of vibrancy not bad behaviour. Of course if it is demonstrated that some campaigners have been obstructing voters on their way to polling booths this is a matter for police rather than electoral control.

Still, this is at least practical compared to the Victorian Parliament’s investigation into whether it can regulate comment on elections on social media. As the Liberal MP Bernie Finn said “On social media it’s the wild, wild west. It’s anything goes.” Even if regulating free democratic speech online was desirable – and why would it be? – it would be utterly, utterly futile to try.

It is hard not to see the proposed changes in Queensland and Victoria as an undue threat to free expression in a healthy democracy. And not trivial ones either. Constraints on advertising and constraints on campaigning inevitably favour the incumbents.

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