Australia’s disenfranchised expats remain voteless
The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) believes existing electoral legislation on expat enrolment is wholly sufficient, although many Australian citizens overseas are presently prevented by law from enrolling to vote, and are therefore deprived of their franchise. Australian electoral law currently prevents Australian citizens from enrolling to vote if it is more than three years since they left Australia to live abroad. This means that expats who are deleted from the electoral roll by the Australian Electoral Commission for whatever reason can find themselves voteless for the duration of their time abroad if they don't realise they have to enrol within that three year window. In its May 2008 submission to the JSCEM's Inquiry, Australian diaspora advocacy and support organisation the Southern Cross Group (SCG) put forward the view that current electoral legislation may in fact now be unconstitutional, when viewed against the High Court's recent statements on the right to vote in the 2007 Roach prisoner voting case. But the JSCEM has failed to assess expat enrolment rules against the High Court's pronouncement that the disenfranchisement of any group of adult citizens on a basis that does not constitute a substantial reason for exclusion from such participation would not be consistent with the Constitution. Despite more than 65 submissions on the expatriate disenfranchisement problem to the JSCEM's Inquiry into the Conduct of the 2007 Election, the Committee's final report, tabled on 22 June 2009, will leave many loyal overseas Australians feeling despondent.
SCG Co-founder Anne MacGregor said from Brussels, "We are disappointed that the JSCEM did not undertake anything other than a very cursory review of current expat voting rules as part of this inquiry. While the other issues it chose to spend time investigating are worthy and will be in part peripherally helpful for those expat Australians who can still vote, that does not change the fact that any Australian citizen who is not presently on the electoral roll and who left more than three years ago remains stripped of a basic democratic right. Very often disenfranchisement occurs because the expat just doesn’t know about the applicable rules in time."
The JSCEM has stated: "Current arrangements do require electors who are travelling overseas with an intention to take up residence in another country to notify the AEC and then take the appropriate steps to maintain their enrolment. However, the committee considers that the taking of actions such as these are valid indicators of electors’ actual and continuing interest in Australian electoral politics and their preparedness to act on their franchise."
The JSCEM considers that current rules "form a valid method of measuring whether a continuing interest in Australian political affairs exists."
Robyn Stephenson, a disenfranchised Australian citizen living in Michigan, said: "The JSCEM’s stance overlooks the fact that thousands of departing Australians every year have simply no idea that they have to be proactive to maintain their vote. Many mistakenly assume that their Australian citizenship in and of itself is enough to guarantee them a right to re-enrol (and vote) at any time in the future even if deleted from the roll at a certain point."
Recommendations in the JSCEM report which will smooth expatriate voting procedures for enfranchised citizens in Australia’s diaspora (if and when they become law) include:
– A recommendation to close the rolls seven days after the issuing of the writs once an election is called;
– A recommendation to allow the date of the witness signature on postal vote declarations to be the determining date for the validity of postal votes (rather than the postmark);
– A recommendation to remove the legislative requirement for signatures on postal vote applications to facilitate online and electronic applications;
– A recommendation that proof of identity be required from each elector once only;
– A recommendation for the creation of an enrolment website for already enrolled electors to update their enrolment information themselves online;
– A recommendation to simplify postal vote application forms.
In February 2009 the SCG wrote to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, suggesting that expatriate enrolment issues should be included in the government’s forthcoming second Green Paper on Electoral Reform, slated for release later this year.
Southern Cross contacts: Robyn Stephenson in Michigan, [email protected]
Anne MacGregor in Brussels, Belgium, [email protected]
About the Southern Cross Group
The Southern Cross Group is an international non-profit volunteer-run advocacy and support organisation for the Australian diaspora.