Thursday, September 9, 2010

2010 Election Carnival

Now that the identity of the new Australian government has finally been resolved, I'm sorely tempted to break into a rendition of The Seekers' hit, 'The Carnival Is Over'.  It's been page-turning stuff, and we have been regularly reminded that the election has come down to handfuls of votes.  This has included some comments about the number of 'informal votes' that were cast, where some people showed up to vote but for whatever reason filled out their ballot paper in such a way that it could not be counted as a vote for any particular candidate. 

But if the general election did indeed come down to mere handfuls of votes, has there been any focus on the 'lost' votes of people living with disability?  After all, there are a range of ways that a person might be thwarted in casting their vote.

Casting your vote is the moment when you make your view known.  It is when you have your say.  Unfortunately, it is not so easy to cast your vote if the polling booth is physically inaccessible.  Also, it is not easy to cast your vote if the moment of voting, when you put your mark against a candidate's name, is reliant on you being able to see the ballot sheet, read the words, and direct the pencil towards the box you wish to mark.  If you need any assistance with these, then there goes your privacy, which is not a good look given that this is meant to be a secret ballot.

Of course, people can use a postal vote process so that they don't have to show up to their local polling booth, and that's a useful option, but it should not be the only option.  Every polling booth needs to be genuinely accessible.  It would not seem right if a person has to use a postal vote arrangement (or go somewhere else to cast a vote using special technology) merely because their local polling booth is inaccessible.  

Accessing the local polling booth is important, and not just because of this principle of accessibility.  It is important because voting is one of the most valued, most fought for, and most defended, roles in society.  If we assign high value to the act of voting, then we assign high value to the person doing the voting.  Given that many people living with disability currently don't get a fair go in undertaking valued roles, it is critically important that a person has the option to attend their local polling station and cast their vote, and be seen to do so.  For this to be possible, all polling booths need to be accessible, both in terms of getting in the building and privately casting the vote.

And then there is the matter of enrolment.  I wonder how many adult Australians living with disability are not enrolled to vote because someone else has formed the view that there's no point because the person does not have the capacity to choose.  That's a big decision for someone to take and should not be taken lightly, because who knows for sure the degree of a person's capacity?  In the legislation, reference is made to people being "of unsound mind", but what exactly is an unsound mind and who gets to decide?  IQ scores have often been used as a guide to someone's intellectual capacity, and may even be a consideration to determine an 'unsound mind', but I don't see why a low IQ score should mean you don't get to vote.  Since when did you have to be smart to vote?

One way through this is to ensure that every young Australian, including young Australians living with disability, are automatically enrolled to vote once they reach the age of 18 years.  After all, voting is mandatory and an automatic enrolment will reduce the big rush from first-time voters to register once the Prime Minister has announced an election, many of whom miss out because there is hardly any time to enrol once the announcement is made.

Were Australia to introduce automatic enrolment, this would ensure that all young Australians living with disability are assigned the valued role of Voter, and it just might shift the focus towards how a person might best be supported to make their voting decision.  This might well take more effort than just deciding that the person doesn't have the capacity, but for our society's sake it is worth it.   In this way, we assume the capacity of everyone to cast their vote, which means we assume the capacity of everyone to make a contribution to their community, to belong. In our lives, there are many ways we might move towards a sense of our own contribution, our own value to our communities, our sense of belonging, but for every adult Australian the very first role assigned on reaching adulthood is the right to vote.  May we never understate the importance of this for Australians living with disability, regardless of what we imagine might be the extent of a person's capacity. 

So, as is currently happening in South Australia, I hope that the Australian Electoral Commission reviews the process of the recent national elections, and examines how best to facilitate every Australian's right to vote.  Also, it would be very helpful, indeed vital, if there was a panel of Australians living with disability to advise the Commission on such matters.  Ditto each state and territory.

I can imagine there will be many people out there who might think there are bigger issues to deal with than this.  Why bang on about voting when some people can't even get reliable assistance to get out of bed in the morning?  This is an understandable view, but bear in mind the intensity of the post-election negotiations we have all just witnessed, where several 'independents' were able to advance a number of causes favourable to their local constituencies.  If we had a comprehensive set of arrangements in place that uphold the right of Australians living with disability to vote, then the next time there is a hung Parliament, it may just be that the focus of the negotiations includes the interests of voters living with disability.


  1. This issue was also proactively raised by a number of students in the disability and community rehabilitation class Perspectives on Disability the Monday after the election. Students shared a variety of experiences and observations about how difficult, and variable it seems tobe to access voting if you live with disability. Many students were shocked and outraged, having been previously unaware that such a basic right was being denied people. I myself at my local polling booth found the front entrance completely inaccessbile and people were almost injuring themselves to get inside to vote. Then after voting you leave the building via a ramp at the back! WHATS THAT! When we (the other half and I) questioned the people running the plant stall at the bottom of the ramp they said they could not use this as an accessible entrance because this polling booth was not a designated accessbile one. Again WHATS THAT! All polling booths should be accessible - the church is making a bomb from the sausage sizzle and plant stall and were very defensive, yet there is a school hall down the road that is accessible. WHATs THAT! And where was the advertising that supposedly let people know which were the 'designated accessible polling booths', none of the 100 students in the class knew of any such things. After much huffing, puffing and promises to send letters and raise the issue the class broke for much needed coffee. Great to see people new to the issues facing everyday activities for people living with disability being recognised by students being awakened and then taking action. Shame that this issue couldn't make it to Insight, Q & A or Today Tonight(maybe not Today Tonight)
    Caroline Ellison - Flinders Uni

  2. Exactly Robbi and Caroline too. The whole thing is a load of crap. Can't think of another word to use really.

    I know quite a few crips who are postal voting but I refuse to do that. I AM lucky that my polling booth is totally accessible but - it is an event to go to, a coming together of the people with a common purpose.

    If we can get in and we can go, then we should go. We have been shut out for too long so we must also SHOUT OUT our anger and frustration at this continual discrimination by government.

  3. The issue of privacy when voting for people with disabilities is important but can be tricky. I have tried a number of approaches when voting which others may find useful. When I am well enough I go to the local polling Booth (checking accessibility first). I ask an official to assist me. I find this is preferable to having someone I know assist because it is more anonymous. This has been quite successful and officials have taken a lot of care to give me as much privacy as possible. Also I notice that they make sure that I accompany them to the ballot box and watch them drop each paper into the box. I have tried two other options. One was to get a postal vote but lodge the ballot papers at the polling booth (my favourite I think). In this way I can have the ballot paper placed on my desk at a particular height so I can complete it myself. Lodging it at the booth meant I still felt part of the community and I got my mandatory sausage. For the last election I simply did a postal vote. Online voting may be useful for some people if it were available.

    I think privacy in many areas of people’s lives who live with disability is often overlooked. Those of us who use agencies for personal assistance often have our personal lives on display through necessity. Phone calls are overheard, private items handled, often with judgemental comment, and conversations with visitors observed with questions later. Another example is the ability to manage my ongoing daily correspondence in private, as I can’t open envelopes and sometimes need physical assistance filling out personal forms etc. I am always on the lookout for a personal attendant who is trustworthy and respects me enough to open my mail without reading it, and assist me to respond to it, without editing content or making comment on the nature of the correspondence (e.g. wow! That bill is huge... I only pay...). Fortunately I have a great person who assists me at the moment.