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No equal voting opportunity

Graham Innes, Australia's Disability Discrimination Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner, voting in secret by telephone in Sydney on 5 August

The High Court challenge to 2006 Electoral Act amendments brought by activist lobby group GetUp! during the election campaign succeeded in adding thousands of otherwise ineligible voters to the electoral roll. Post-election commentary reports the increased informal vote. It highlights the contrast in the Australian electorate between those fighting to exercise their right to vote, and those fighting not to vote.

Here's another contradiction: some citizens cannot be placed on the roll at all. Excitement surrounding the election and the resultant hung parliament contrasts with the continuing disenfranchisement of a significant number of Australians with intellectual disabilities or mental illness.

According to section 93 of the Electoral Act, a person meeting age, citizenship and other requirements of enrolling to vote cannot enrol if they are ‘of unsound mind ... incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting'. Section 29 of the Disability Discrimination Act makes it unlawful to ‘exercise any power under a Commonwealth law to discriminate against another person on the grounds of...disability...', yet the Electoral Act remains unchanged. It remains to be seen what would happen if it were challenged.

The focus of many of the Australian Electoral Commission's initiatives are (like most disability initiatives) focused on physical disability. Although the AEC's latest disability action plan appears also to consider those with intellectual, psychiatric, sensory, neurological, and learning disabilities, legislation does not provide them all with a vote.

To be fair, the AEC is making strides by providing information and assistance to a number of diverse and possibly marginalised electors. An inquiry into electoral accessibility for people with disabilities by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission a decade ago provided the impetus for a number of them.

Mobile polling teams bring portable booths to electors unable to visit a polling place, in some hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and remote areas. Some stationary polling places are selected based on accessibility, and publicised accordingly.

Early votes, available to all citizens, are useful if managing work commitments or travelling arrangements. But more importantly, early votes benefit potentially disenfranchised voters: those ill, infirm or approaching childbirth (or caring for someone who is); in hospital; in prison or detained; unable to attend for religious reasons; or regional electors more than 8 kilometres from a polling place. 

The AEC respects community diversity by providing electoral information in 21 languages, and a telephone interpreter service. At polling booths, trained staff provide assistance to voters if the managing polling official deems a person unable to vote without help.

Voters can also nominate any person (excepting political candidates) for support. A friend, relative, or party worker can help complete, fold and deposit the ballot paper. If no-one is nominated, the official in charge will assist, with scrutineers able to be present while ballots are completed.

Strategies permit special category electors, including those going overseas, in prison, with no fixed address, or unable to sign their name, to enrol and apply to become a general postal voter. 

Finally, recent changes enabled voters who are vision-impaired to cast a truly ‘secret ballot' by telephone for the first time - a milestone to be celebrated. Australia's Disability and Race Discrimination Commissioner, Graham Innes (pictured voting on 5 August), was one of them.

All these strategies promote inclusion in the Australian electorate. But electoral accessibility overlooks those with intellectual disabilities or mental illness. They remain disenfranchised.

No doubt the families and carers of people with such disability or illness consider their interests when casting their own ballot. They also frequently make decisions on behalf of their ill or disabled family member. Even so, every citizen affected by government policy should have a vote for the candidate or party who will represent their interests and provide the best policy outcomes. Similarly, it is reasonable that families choose the most appropriate political representative for that person.

Even someone vested with Power-of-Attorney cannot vote on an elector's behalf. Powers-of-Attorney are not mindlessly granted and entail significant expense, usually by the representative closest to the person. It is unlikely to be misused any more than other potential faultlines within the electoral system. Checks and balances are always necessary, as for example by requiring proof of identification from the carer at a polling place.

Disability issues are receiving more public attention. South Australia elected a ‘Dignity 4 Disability' representative, with disabilities, to its Legislative Council. The Rudd Labor government initiated a Productivity Commission inquiry into a long term disability care and support scheme. It received many submissions. Concerned citizens would welcome similar progress in electoral matters.

Moira Byrne GartonMoira Byrne Garton is a Ph.D. student in political science at the Australian National University, a policy analyst. She is strongly engaged with disability issues.

Topic tags: AEC, mental illness, intellectual disability, disenfranchisement, voting, poll, election



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Existing comments

When I attended my local venue of the polling booths, the AEC 'advertisement - how to vote properly(?)' was playing on a tv in the foyer where thousands who lined up were exposed. When I asked for the captions to be turned on - the staff were at a loss.

Susan Bates | 02 September 2010  

After hearing the heaps of negativity+ comments on the political websites, it makes good reading to know of some positive improvements

Ray O'Donoghue | 02 September 2010  

Thanks for this interesting article. You distinguish intellectual disability and mental illness, and this needs to be done by the Electoral Commission. Persons with a serious mental illness have differing levels of intellectual awareness, as we all do. If they move to crises of paranoia and/or psychosis they may not be able to vote and there must be a proviso made so that they are not fined. Persons with an intellectual disability have very wide ranges of social awareness and should register to vote if they desire to do so, possibly with same proviso already noted.

Caroline Storm | 02 September 2010  

Moira, Nice article! The Democratic Audit has recommending taking th term 'unsound mind' out of the act on the grounds that it is offensive and no one knows what it means.I understand that the most use it gets is an acceptable excuse for some people not voting.It does not seem to be used to prevent people voting or enrolling.

Brian Costar | 02 September 2010  

Good points.

I would apply the logic of this argument to children under the voting age. After all, they are affected by government policies as much as anyone else. They should not be discriminated against as second class citizens. Yet this is the case as long as their stake is not proportionately reflected at the ballot box. Parents or guardians ought to have extra votes based on the number of children they have, until those children reach the voting age.

HH | 02 September 2010  

The phone woke me at 7.30am on the Friday before the recent election by a call from my sister. She has Down's Syndrome and after checking that i was awake, asked me if i had time to discuss "who should I vote for". We talked about Labor having the first disability strategy and what was happening with her pension as she knows that comes from Canberra. She had a strong view on her like/dislike of the party leaders and after a 10 min converstation, had worked out who she wanted to vote for on the Saturday.

She has been voting in elections for the past 22 years and is now familiar with the practicalities and the preparation involved. Initially, it took a bit of time to talk it all through and for her to get the hang of it. Now, she is a keen voter.
Many of her friends do not vote, which surprises and saddens me. It is possible for people with intellectual disabilties to make well informed decisions and participate as equal Australian citizens.

Kathleen vdW | 03 September 2010  

I think the intention, and many of the ideas of this article are noteworthy, but I must say that I think it is completely unacceptable to allow any one voter in a community more weight in voting that any other voter - and that is what would be happening if some of us were to be allowed to vote on behalf of others. An allowance such as this would be open to misuse, and goes itself against the concept of democracy. I agree, though, with Caroline that the mentally ill may like to vote, and that many of the mentally disabled may too, and that both groups may be quite competent to do so, but I think that Kathleen's story indicates that in practice, this does happen.

Jennifer Osborne | 03 September 2010  

Our supposed representatives in parliament do not really represent us. When they campaign they mention the goodies they get for the district. They do not mention their opinions or ideas. Why should they as they are supposed to vote the way the party tells them. Party discipline should apply only to the party platforms. Other than that our representatives should vote in parliament informed by the views of their constituents, their conscience and what they perceive as the good of Australia.

David Fisher | 03 September 2010  

Thank you all for your comments and stories. Kathleen, I was encouraged; actually, a friend of mine with Down's syndrome is also a voter.

However the criteria in the legislation requires someone 'able to understand the nature and significance of voting'. A 24 year old relative, with autism (the lower end of functionality) is therefore precluded.

Jennifer, I would contend that someone like my 24 year old relative should be able to have someone cast a vote for them. You may be underestimating the motives and the intellect of the carer by thinking that they would vote the same way for themselves. Carers often make purchasing decisions, choose clothing, and make entertainment choices based on the preferences of the person they care for, and not their own views. There is no reason to believe otherwise when it comes voting matters.

Rather than such a change giving a voter more weight, I consider that it would provide an electorally excluded citizen with a vote. Therefore, it would actually enhance rather than diminish our democracy.

Moira Byrne Garton | 06 September 2010  

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