Melbourne woman Shea MacDonough is 36 years old and excited to be voting in her first federal election.
- Disability advocates are calling for urgent reform to the Commonwealth Electoral Act.
- They say it’s time to change a law that can remove the voting rights of Australians with intellectual disabilities.
- The AEC says it’s important voting rights aren’t taken away “without due process”.
Ms MacDonough, who lives with Down syndrome, was taken off the electoral roll by her parents in 2012.
They were concerned she didn’t understand the voting process and were worried they could influence her vote.
But no one realized how hard it would be for Ms MacDonough to get back on the electoral roll when she wanted to.
It was during Australia’s same sex marriage referendum in 2017 that Ms MacDonough decided she wanted to have her say.
“My cousin and her partner, they’re both gay, and I wanted to be on the same sex marriage vote so I could vote for that,” she said.
With her parents’ support, Ms MacDonough went onto the electoral roll website to re-register but later received a letter from the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) saying she’d been rejected.
Quoting a section of the Commonwealth Electoral Act created in 1918, the letter said she’d been removed from the roll “by reason of being of unsound mind” and being “incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting”.
That upset Ms MacDonough, as it said she could not be restored to the roll unless she provided “documentary evidence from a medical practitioner” that she was now “capable of understanding”.
Ms MacDonough penned a response to the AEC, which helped kick-start the process of getting her back on the roll.
The re-enrolment process took three months and meant she missed out on voting in the same sex marriage referendum.
Since being re-enrolled later in 2017, Ms MacDonough has participated in the Victorian state election and is looking forward to voting in the federal election on May 21.
Natalie Wade, vice president of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, said the “unsound mind” provisions, which are still in place, “disproportionately” impacts people with disability.
She said they’d been removed in “droves” from the electoral roll compared to people without disability.
“We’re really concerned that in 2022, we still have these laws in place,” Ms Wade said.
“The current wording … targets people with disabilities, particularly those with intellectual disability and cognitive impairment, who have not been afforded the right to education, who may have low literacy, who have not been afforded the right to social participation or employment. “
According to a 2014 report by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC), more than 28,000 people were removed from the federal electoral roll between 2008 and 2012.
The AEC did not provide a response to the ABC’s request for more current data of the numbers of people removed from the electoral roll.
A campaign by 65 disability and legal rights organizations is calling for reform of the “unsound mind” provisions, as they pertain to people with disability.
An open letter sent to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Labor leader Anthony Albanese last month calls for “urgent” reform during the government’s next term.
“It harks back to a time where we referred to people with disabilities in very grotesque ways – as lunatics in asylums – but we absolutely must ensure that our laws reflect our current understanding of disability.”
Law ‘inconsistent with human rights
Concern about the law is not new.
In 2014, the ALRC issued a report calling for the electoral act to be amended.
Ms Wade said the laws were “inconsistent” with Australia’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which states “people with disability must be afforded the right and opportunity to vote on an equal basis with others.”
The AEC’s Evan Ekin-Smyth said it was important a right was not being taken away from someone “without due process”.
“However, in a compulsory voting system it is also important that an obligation is not put onto an individual who cannot, or can no longer, understand the nature and significance of enrolment and voting,” Mr Ekin-Smyth said.
“The importance of a provision that provides for removal from the roll in these circumstances would be acutely understood by carers and family members of people with advanced dementia for instance.”
Mr Ekin-Smyth said the AEC “regularly” received feedback that the words ‘unsound mind’ were “not appropriate.”
“We endeavor to be sensitive in our communication,” he said.
‘We are valuable members of society’
Earlier this year, Tasmanian teenager Caitlin Woolley wrote about Australia she wanted as a 19-year-old living with Down syndrome.
It was read to the House of Representatives by independent MP Andrew Wilkie.
May 21 will be the first federal election in which Ms Woolley will be able to vote.
“I am particularly interested in issues of disability … about the inclusion for people of disability in their community, in health and in work,” she said.
Ms Woolley is a health ambassador for Down Syndrome Australia and has met with politicians from across the political spectrum, who said “wanted to learn more” about people with disability.
Ms Woolley said each person with Down syndrome had “their own ideas and opinions”.
“We need to speak up for what is important to us and being included in voting helps us do that.”
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