ANU: Barriers to voting in remote First Nations communities

The rate of voter participation in federal elections by people living in remote Indigenous communities has been lower than the national average since First Nations people were granted the right to vote in 1962. In recent years, the rate has been in decline. Rates are lowest in the Northern Territory.

The low rate of participation among First Nations people living in remote communities could affect the lower house election results in the Northern Territory seat of Lingiari. Warren Snowden has stepped down after 20 years holding the seat.

Determining rates of voter participation
Measuring the number of First Nations people (or any particular demographic group) who vote in federal elections is challenging. Electoral rolls do not include information about cultural identity. Census figures, which could be used as a basis for comparison against voter turnout rates, are imprecise.

Data from the 2005 NT Assembly general election show voting rates were 20 per cent lower in electorates with the highest Indigenous populations.

In his study of the 2019 federal election, Australian National University researcher Will Sanders found “perhaps only half of eligible Aboriginal citizens […] may be utilising their right to vote.”

Reports from the Northern Territory’s most recent Assembly election also found record low turnout across Indigenous communities.

Research shows rates of informal votes are also higher in remote Indigenous communities.

Barriers to First Nations people voting
Decisions made at the federal level over the last three decades appear to have provided significant obstacles to voting in some First Nations communities.

First is the 1996 abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Election Education and Information Service.

Two studies point to this abolition as a potential reason for a decline in voting rates in remote Indigenous communities since the mid-nineties.

Established in 1979, this service existed specifically to increase voter registration rates among First Nations people. This was done by, for example, providing voter education and election materials in Indigenous languages.

The second decision was the 2005 abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

First Nations people participated in five of the Commission’s elections administered by the same Australian Electoral Commission responsible for federal elections. Although voting was voluntary, analysis shows participation was higher in northern and central Australia than in southern Australia.

The third relevant policy change was the passage of the 2006 Electoral Integrity Bill. This introduced more stringent rules for the identification required to vote, making it more difficult for people in at least one remote community to register to vote.

The Morrison government’s unsuccessful 2021 proposal to introduce even tougher voter identification laws would likely exacerbate this problem.

The fourth policy decision was a 2012 change to the Commonwealth Electoral Act, known as the “Federal Direct Enrolment and Update”.

This enabled the Australian Electoral Commission to register eligible Australians to vote based on information available through several government agencies. These include Centrelink/the Department of Human Services, the Australian Taxation Office, and the National Exchange of Vehicle and Driver Information Service.

But the Electoral Commission has chosen not to use this mechanism for enrolment in parts of Australia where mail is sent to a single community address (“mail exclusion areas”).

This means people living in many remote communities are not automatically added to the electoral roll, unlike most of the rest of Australia.

West Arnhem Regional Council mayor Matthew Ryan and Yalu Aboriginal Corporation chairman Ross Mandi launched an official complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commissioner over this issue in June last year.

They argued failure to apply the Federal Direct Enrolment and Update in remote communities represents a breach of the Racial Discrimination Act.

A survey of residents in one remote community on South Australia’s APY lands found a lack of information contributed to low participation in elections.

Obstacles included:

a lack of materials available in appropriate languages

uncertainty about how to cast a formal vote

problems related to literacy, and

a lack of appropriate identification necessary to enrol.

In October last year, the Australian Electoral Commission announced new funding for its Indigenous Electoral Participation program with the aim of increasing enrolment rates; the upcoming election will show if the program is working.

Lingiari
Given that voting is compulsory in Australia, non-participation is a concern in any election. But these issues are likely to be particularly relevant in the 2022 federal election, at least in the seat of Lingiari.

Lingiari covers all of the Northern Territory outside the greater Darwin/Palmerston area. So it is the one House of Representatives division where Indigenous Australians (many of them living in remote communities) have clear electoral power.

Providing more mobile polling booths could help make voting easier for people in remote Indigenous communities. Currently, these booths can be present for as little as two hours during an entire election period.

There is also evidence Indigenous people are more likely to vote in elections for Indigenous candidates, and for candidates who have visited their community.

Warren Snowden has represented the electorate since its creation in 2001, but he is not contesting this election; the seat is up for grabs.

Indigenous people will determine who takes Snowden’s place. But how many of them vote may be limited by their ability to enrol, the availability of information in an appropriate language, and access a polling booth.

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