In a world where Republicans are gradually restricting the right to vote by creating new barriers for prisoners, working class people and people of colour, Australia seems a model functional democracy. Mandatory voting, elections on weekends, easy registration, voting rights for most prisoners, long enrolment periods and short voting wait times mean that Australia has one of the world’s highest voter turnouts.
Additionally, Parliament’s ability to restrict voting rights or registration opportunities are limited, the High Court finding such restrictions to be largely unconstitutional.
That view, however, is incomplete. Although voting in Australia is far easier than most industrial democracies, voting remains incredibly difficult for the most marginalised. Tens of thousands of First Nations voters remain ineligible to vote because of cuts to AEC funding, the federal LNP is considering some of the same restrictive reforms American conservatives have implemented, and turnout rates amongst young people remain relatively low. Though subtler than American suppression, these policies reflect the choices of a political elite as to who is heard, and who is not.
In modern elections, the Northern Territory (NT) is given relatively little attention. With only two electorates — Solomon, recently won back by Labor from Country Liberals, and Lingiari, a Labor safe seat across the rest of the territory — broader Australia rarely invest much energy into this corner of an election. A quarter of the NT population of approximately 250’000 are First Nations rights-holders. The territory also easily has the lowest voter-enrollment rate in the country at 83.9% – 12.3% lower than the national average, which means 26,731 adults are not on the electoral roll. When booths open this coming weekend for the federal election, 1 in 3 First Nations adults will not even be enrolled to participate. This reality should provoke major anxiety for the health of democracy in the region.
Despite the longstanding under-enrolment of Territorians, the Coalition government chose to cut $1.5 million in funds to the NT Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) office, with a further $8.4 million planned in future years. Five staff were fired from the Enrolment Branch, and four in the Indigenous Participation and Voter Education Branch. In the face of countless communities that lack the infrastructure to cast a vote, these cuts can only represent state negligence, and arguably, malice.
Most worryingly, enrolling approximately 20,000 people would easily swing a close election. Although Labor MP Warren Snowden has held the seat for decades, Jacinta Price, Warlpiri and Celtic woman and Country Liberals candidate, is expected to closely contest much of conservative urban Lingiari.
However, poor engagement is harmful regardless of the influenced election result. Parties are left with less impetus to make adversarial policy for many of the communities living around the poverty-line across the NT. One’s right to vote is contingent on their right to have their vote genuinely facilitated — this is especially true in communities manhandled by settler-colonial policies like the Northern Territory Intervention Act.
In addition to refunding programs that promote community engagement, the AEC should establish direct enrolment across the NT. Direct enrolment programs use government lists to automatically enroll people unless they opt-out — they are currently used to great effect in urban areas, including Darwin, however, are not used in most of Lingiari, where postal services are deemed too ‘unreliable.’ In the context of compulsory voting, the Coalition government’s refusal to protect the democratic rights of entire swathes of disadvantaged communities is voter suppression, plain and simple.
In 2015 the Queensland LNP government passed legislation requiring voters to present government-issued identification in order to vote. The move mirrored voter identification requirements recently enacted in a number of conservative American states, which many have accused of disproportionately disenfranchising people of colour and poorer voters. Unsurprisingly, a study of the Queensland requirements found them to have excluded more voters in Indigenous and remote communities. More generally, turnout in the 2015 election saw the lowest Queensland turnout rates since 1980.
Despite this drop in turnout, the federal Coalition has continued to consider such reforms. This is in spite of consensus amongst electoral experts that voter fraud is essentially non-existent. Whilst it is difficult to know if such requirements change the outcome of elections, they have not met the onus of proving that they are required.
Access to voting also cuts across generational lines. Whilst a number of states have expanded postal voting, to account for older voters, NSW remains the only state to allow enrolment on election days, which appeals to younger voters. Queensland’s identification requirements also reveal a bias towards older voters, as younger voters are more likely to vote in person.
The groups we divert resources towards encouraging to vote, and the way our electoral policies are made are both political choices. Current electoral policies betray indifference on the part of both major parties to the votes of young people.
These choices have clear outcomes. A YVote study of the 2016 federal election found that if young people had voted at similar rates to other age groups, it could have changed the outcome of ten marginal seats. Recent polling has demonstrated that age is more important than political ideology in terms of determining the likelihood someone supports action on climate change.
In these ways and many more, Australian elites manufacture participation in elections, shoring up their continued hegemony and protecting their interests. Electorate boundaries are moved, just like America. We void the rights of prisoners with sentences greater than three years to vote, despite their incarceration being likely explained by their socio-economic environment. Even those eligible are not adequately engaged; in 2013, only 1 per cent of roughly 10,600 enrolment packs provided to NSW prisons for inmates to complete postal votes ahead of the 2013 election were completed and returned.
We often question why voters don’t support serious political action towards decolonisation, for wealth equality, or against climate change. Perhaps we must begin with those who cannot even vote.