TONY SMITH. Disability and disenfranchisement: the social construction of political disadvantage

Mar 29, 2019

Thanks to the determination of disability advocates such as Senator Steele-John, national attention is being drawn to ways in which society fails people with ‘disabilities’. Indeed, in our general disregard for the needs of Australians of different abilities, we exclude many people from full participation in social, economic and political life. The difficulties of voting in the 2019 New South Wales election show how we construct social disadvantage. Aspects of the election were discriminatory enough to amount to disenfranchisement. 

In 1990, the United Nations’ International Literacy Year, I was in possibly a unique position, working both as a political scientist and as an ‘Adult Literacy Officer’ with TAFE in New South Wales. I was well aware of ways in which the arbitrary requirements of reading and writing created disadvantage for those people whose literacy skills were low. My researches into the 1990 federal election led me to produce a paper ‘Literacy and Elections: De Facto Disenfranchisement’.

I found literacy requirements created barriers to full participation in elections in several ways. Presentation of information in written form and assumptions regarding literacy skills could have affected enrolments, attendance, rates of formality, possible ‘donkey’ voting and the ability to cast an informed ballot. Not only did these barriers operate at an objective level when people engaged with the electoral process but they also operated at a subjective level so that some Australians avoided the embarrassment of declaring their low confidence in literacy. Advocates for people from a non-English speaking background were interested in the research as were some politicians, as it seemed likely that as many as ten per cent of constituents could be disadvantaged.

Despite being a firm believer in compulsory voting, I called for an amnesty for people who had not voted at the election. While such a move might have excused people who failed to vote because of carelessness or negativity, it would be better to let them off the hook rather than prosecute one person who had failed to vote because of low literacy skills. It would be discriminatory to expect such people to come forward and identify themselves.

For slightly different reasons, I think that those people who failed to vote at the 2019 NSW election should be granted an amnesty. This would do no harm as, prior to the poll, people would have expected fines to apply and so their understanding was that voting was compulsory. By the time of the next poll in 2023, amendments to the conduct of elections could eliminate most of the discrimination now affecting the system.

I recently acquired what I hope is a temporary physical disability. I rely on either a walker or a wheelchair and the assistance of my partner to get around. I do not feel confident enough to drive. As waiting in line tires me quickly, I hope to exercise a pre-poll vote. I located the address of the pre-polling place in Bathurst. There was however, little information about the physical conditions of the place. I wanted to know for example, whether there were disability parking spaces close to the venue and whether there were accessible toilets. Being on a diuretic means I tend to have regular need of these latter facilities.

Unfortunately the electoral office provides few telephone contact numbers and there was none listed for this pre-polling place. Like other government departments, the electoral office seems keen for people to engage initially with its website and, perhaps preferably, exclusively. Telephone enquiries resulted in the pushing of buttons with the typical promise that ‘all other enquiries’ would be answered eventually. I gave up in frustration.

I then resorted to faxing an application for a postal vote. I got no acknowledgment that the application had been received.  I was preparing to visit the pre-polling centre reluctantly when the postal vote arrived.

The electoral office makes efforts to ensure that voters with disabilities are not disadvantaged. It has always been happy to provide poll workers to assist on polling day for any voter who requires help completing the ballot papers. It lists on its website those centres which have wheelchair access. It makes special efforts to ensure that neither hearing nor sight requirements disadvantage voters. Unfortunately, it seems likely that many people could be deterred by difficulties accessing assistance in the fortnight prior to polling day. While I have no problem ‘admitting’ my disability, many people could resent having to identify themselves as disabled in order to gain special help. The voting process should be able to accommodate anyone and a good place to begin would be a properly designed telephone procedure.

The difficulties involved in voting are a stark example of the ways in which society creates obstacles to full participation in social and political life. In the case of elections, the inability to engage fully with the process has a double effect by excluding many disabled people. Voting is just the start of engagement with the policy process. Disabled people should be able to have an effective voice in the policies which affect them. We should not punish them further by fining them for a disability which we, in ignorance, impose upon them.

Dr Tony Smith is a former  political science academic with interests in parliament, elections and political ethics.

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