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Conduct of the 2004 federal election and matters related thereto

CHAIR —Welcome. We have received your organisation’s submission, numbered 135, which has been authorised for publication. Are there any corrections or amendments that you wish to make to it?

Mr Power —No, but there are some documents we would like to give to the committee, if we are free to do that.

CHAIR —The secretariat staff might just talk to you. While that is happening, in order to move things along, I ask you to make a brief opening statement.

Ms Mattiazo —First, we would like to thank the committee members for inviting us here today. To give a little bit of background information on Blind Citizens Australia, we are the peak national advocacy organisation of and for blind and vision impaired people. Our mission is to achieve equity and equality by our empowerment, by promoting positive community attitudes and by striving for high quality and accessible services which meet our needs. As the national peak advocacy body, we are primarily concerned about the human rights of people who are blind or vision impaired. We have in excess of 3,000 individual members. We have branches on a nationwide basis, and around 15 affiliate organisations that are part of our organisation.

With reference specifically to the 2004 federal election and every other federal election preceding it, we come before this committee today to assert in the clearest of terms that Australia’s democracy is discriminatory because it prevents voters who are blind or vision impaired from casting an independent, secret and verifiable vote when it is evident that the technology exists to prevent this discrimination from occurring. On polling day, people who are blind or vision impaired have no option but to compromise the sanctity of their voting intentions by informing another person how they wish to cast their vote. Under section 234 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, voters who are blind or vision impaired must disclose their voting intentions to a trusted partner, friend or family member who will execute the vote for them. If these supports are unavailable, they must rely on the discretion of the electoral official present at the polling station. In 1918, one could understand why such a law was introduced into voting procedures. However, in the present climate of Australia’s wealth and technological capabilities, the continuation of these practices demonstrates an open prejudice towards people who are blind or vision impaired, and calls into question Australia’s democratic reputation.

To date, only the Australian Capital Territory, in their last two parliamentary elections—that is, 2001 and 2004—have provided a system of voting conducted through electronic means that allows people who are blind or vision impaired to vote independently and in secret. In our submission to this inquiry, we included firsthand comments from our members who are blind or vision impaired on how they felt when casting their vote on Saturday, 9 October 2004. If the committee pleases, I would like to read a couple of the comments. One member wrote:

I felt disenfranchised by having to tell someone else how I wanted to vote when I knew there was a way that I could have had a private or secret ballot. I’m sure most Australians think that everyone in our great democracy gets a secret ballot, and they would be very concerned if they knew that this was not the case.

Another person—a ‘despondent and embarrassed’ young member—wrote:

My mother filled out my ballot paper when I told her my preferences; it felt as if I was still a child and not an adult even though I was twenty. I should have been able to vote by myself had it not been for my vision loss.

I ask committee members to reflect on how they would feel if the only option they had at election time was to disclose their voting intentions, knowing that the technology was available to avoid this practice. To stop this discrimination in our voting system, Blind Citizens Australia advocates for a brand of electronic voting called electronic assisted voting. Electronic assisted voting uses a standard personal computer equipped with audio technology and headphones to allow the blind or vision impaired voter to electronically complete their ballot paper. The completed ballot paper would be printed out, which the voter could then place in a standard ballot box. In this way, a blind person could cast an independent, verifiable and valid vote.

All of the components of EAV—the computer, the headphones, the printer—would be located in a private booth. To ensure the blind or vision impaired person knew precisely what was going to be printed out, the audio-synthesised voice would read back to the voter how they intended to vote prior to finalising and casting their vote. The printed ballot paper would print face down and the blind or vision impaired person would simply fold the ballot paper and place it in the ballot box. If the voter required guidance in locating the printer or the ballot box, this should be provided. However, under no circumstances should the secrecy of voters’ ballots be compromised with this assistance.

EAV has the advantage of providing a secure environment because there is no networking involved. All of the components of EAV would be stand alone. Security would also be maintained because a paper trail remains. In relation to the concern about the cost of implementing such a system, Blind Citizens Australia asserts this should be a secondary consideration when the democratic rights of people who are blind or vision impaired are at stake. Every citizen in this country deserves the right to cast an independent, secret and verifiable vote, including people who are blind or vision impaired.

When it comes to human rights—and with them the right of the individual to vote in secrecy—there is no room for discrepancy. This view has been articulated in the United Nations draft comprehensive and integral international convention on the projection and promotion of the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities. Draft article 18 covering participation in political and public life asserts, among other things, that parties recognise the political rights of persons with disabilities without discrimination and undertake to protect the right of citizens with disabilities to vote by secret ballot.

During May this year, the Victorian parliament’s Scrutiny of Acts and Regulatory Committee released the final report of their inquiry into electronic democracy. Blind Citizens Australia made a submission to this inquiry and provided evidence at their public hearings advocating for EAV. Recommendation 53 of the Victorian committee’s final report states:

The Victorian electoral committee, in consultation with relevant stakeholder groups, should develop and implement a system of electronic voting machines for local and general elections in Victoria. These machines should permit the casting of a private, unassisted vote for the blind and Victorians with limited vision and Victorians with low levels of English literacy.

We call upon the committee, in cooperation with the Australian Electoral Commission, to make a similar recommendation to that proposed under recommendation 53 of the Victorian parliament’s Scrutiny of Acts and Regulatory Committee, and join Victoria and the lead set by the ACT. Any trial proposal of electronic voting must include people who are blind or vision impaired if our federal electoral system is serious about ending discrimination.

In conclusion, securing the voting rights of people who are blind or vision impaired in a democracy should not be a challenge or something to weigh up or think about. One would expect that, in a mature democracy like Australia’s, correcting voting procedures to improve the democratic rights of its citizens would be embraced with a strong sense of urgency, leadership and purpose. The time for thinking about whether the democratic rights of people who are blind or vision impaired should be improved or not, must end. At the next federal election, we want the same rights that others have had, and we ask for the leadership of this committee to secure it.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. That was most informative and very well put together. You have heard the previous witnesses, and we have heard your statement and we have read your submission. The principles you outline are ones which all members of this committee would agree with. Australia invented the secret ballot, and we are at the point now where, technologically, these sorts of things should not be difficult. We are happy to have you along, and that is why you are here. We have had hearings elsewhere in regional Australia where there are other difficulties with voting and the whole issue of technology, I can assure you, on behalf of all members of this committee—Labor, Liberal and Democrat—will feature quite prominently in our report of what technological advances can be made with the Electoral Commission.

I will now open it up to questions. As you answer them, any other insights you can provide about how the AEC could go about road testing something in time for it to work would be good. Certainly from my point of view, cost should not be an issue in terms of people having their democratic rights. That is my view, and I am happy to state it up-front as a member of parliament.

Ms PANOPOULOS —You read out the recommendation from the Victorian committee, which included a statement about assisting voters who are vision impaired, and also there was a comment regarding those who were not proficient in English; was that the phrase?

Ms Mattiazo —Yes.

Mr Power —That is correct.

Ms PANOPOULOS —Was that part of the submission that your organisation gave to the Victorian committee?

Mr Power —No, it was only on the issue of electronic assisted voting.

Senator MURRAY —Thank you for your submission. The chair pointed out an issue we have covered in rural and remote Australia, and that is circumstances where people living genuinely in the outback on stations and that sort of thing might not be able for weather or other reasons to attend on the polling day. They suggested the opportunity should be available for them to pre-poll a vote or, if necessary, to vote from their own stations electronically and not by way of a paper ballot, because if weather prevented accessing a station, it would also prevent the mail from operating, and the mail may only operate occasionally.

With that context in mind, one of the possibilities that parliament could consider is to give vision impaired people more authority over their own vote by making available on a pre-poll basis at selected points on the basis you outline—namely, with computers which have tactile facilities and so on. It might be much easier and much less costly than trying to do it in every polling booth throughout Australia on the day of an election. Would you react negatively or positively to the idea that people who wish to vote in the manner outlined in your submission should be able to vote in the fashion you suggest on a pre-poll basis?

Mr Power —We would definitely be in favour of pre-polling—as an opening reply to that question. However, it is our baseline position that we would prefer it that electronic assisted voted be available in all polling booths, so that people who are blind or vision impaired can participate in their local community’s democratic day, so to speak, when you go to the local scout hall and that sort of thing.

Mr MELHAM —What if it is in the electoral office which, on the day itself, normally handles interstate votes? We could have a facility where pre-polling takes place in the electoral office in the lead-up to an election, but on the day of the election itself, if you want to avail yourself of electronically assisted voting, like an interstate vote, you are required to go to the electoral office in a particular division. So what you would have is, in effect, about 150 polling places around the country on the day properly able to entertain this particular kind of voting, which enables you to participate on the day as well? We would introduce amendments that allow the Electoral Commission to conduct that type of voting on the day, but at the electoral office. I have 33 polling places in my electorate, for instance. I do not know that it would be feasible to replicate that around the whole of the country.

Senator MURRAY —I take Mr Melham’s interjection. Is the point that he is making what I suspect—that the electoral system and the government may not be at the stage where they could introduce the sort of voting you suggest across Australia in every polling booth, which they would be required to do. So it is really a selective policy, both on a pre-poll basis and an ordinary vote on the day, but at designated polling booths which, in this case, would be the Australian electoral office for the division?

Mr Power —It is the position of Blind Citizens Australia that we would be in support of that. We see that as definitely a step in the right direction. Naturally, coming from a broad based human rights perspective in the agenda of our organisation, we would prefer that it be in every polling station, but of course we can see that logistically and in terms of finance that would be a difficult proposition. Therefore, we would be in support of any type of pre-polling situation that allowed people who were blind or vision impaired to vote in secret and independently through electronic assisted voting. I should clarify: also on the day as well, at polling stations, and at pre-polling stations.

CHAIR —That is what Mr Melham suggested?

Mr MELHAM —That is what I am suggesting.

CHAIR —In each electorate the electoral office is often the pre-poll location, for ease of simplicity, but on election day you cannot pre-poll, you can only vote interstate. So it is open anyway, and it is where the senior people of the AEC are—sometimes handling disputes that for some reason are known to happen on election day. Mr Melham and Senator Murray’s point, as a start—given that the technology has not been refined yet—is to have voting at that place where you would have expert staff and the most senior staff of the AEC. As you would appreciate, on election day a host of volunteers simply come in for the day. What I think they were drawing to, without trying to put words into their mouths, was that you want a provision of a service, but there is only one thing worse than the non-provision of a service and that is an inability of people to use it on the day. So, as a start, at his office in Banks—I am not sure where it is; mine is always in Lilydale in the electorate of Casey—if it is well advertised and signposted around, that might be a good first step.

Mr MELHAM —I understand that it does not go all the way to what you want, Mr Power, but it goes partially to where you want to go. Of course, there are the other facilities of postal and pre-poll where there would be people who are impaired who do not mind having someone to assist them. That still does not preclude people from getting assistance on the day at a normal polling place by an official or a friend. In this instance what we would have is a minimum of 150 places, one per division, and obviously some in capital cities, where you could go if you did not want to be assisted. There would be a designated place that you would know beforehand that would be advertised for people to attend both in the pre-poll period and on the day itself to register a vote without assistance. As the chair says, the facilities would be there. I am attracted to the fact that senior staff are in attendance at the electoral office; you do not have staff who are just brought in for the particular day, and it does not require a massive infrastructure. In some respects, there could be an argument in terms of its cost outweighing its use in terms of numbers. Then come economies of scale but, working within an existing infrastructure and existing electoral offices, we might be able to come part of the way.

CHAIR —Could I clarify one other point that a lot of people are not aware of. Were this to be a first step, it would not be a case of your not quite having the same rights as every other voter in every respect. In fact, the pre-poll arrangement would be an extension of the right of every ordinary voter. It is a common misconception that you can pre-poll as of right. You certainly cannot. That is not in the provisions of the act—as my bipartisan expert on the electoral act will tell you, and certainly the Electoral Commission in the last election. I hope it was in every electorate, but in mine they certainly clamped down on that.

Mr MELHAM —Only in limited cases.

CHAIR —You have to absolutely be unable to make it to a booth on polling day. For instance, it cannot just be that you are going on a day trip. You have to prove it, so it is quite limited. What we are suggesting is that that be available to your constituents over and above the entitlement of ordinary voters. It would be the case that if you did not have it in every single polling booth on election day it would not be quite what you want at this point in time, although that would come, but if you had pre-polling every day that would actually be voting opportunities that no other voters have. That is an important point to make.

Mr Power —We would definitely be in favour of that type of move forward. We would see that as a great benefit to people who are blind or vision impaired.

Senator MASON —You heard the previous evidence. Was there anything that you disagreed with from the previous witnesses?

Mr Power —First, I want to clarify that when we stated our approval of the model that you put forward, we were talking about electronic assisted voting—is that correct—at these polling stations?


Ms Mattiazo —For pre-polling.

CHAIR —And election day.

Mr MELHAM —For pre-polling and on the day in question.

Ms Mattiazo —Yes.

CHAIR —What it would mean is that in an ideal world—which we do not live in—you would be able to go along to any polling booth and have available the facility you have been talking about as a first step, because things always have to start somewhere—if that were available at a location in every single House of Representatives electorate, every day of pre-polling and on election day. That is what we were suggesting.

Mr Power —Just on that clarification, yes, we are very much in support of that.

Senator MASON —Is there anything from the previous evidence that you heard with which you disagree or would like to elaborate on?

Mr Power —No, but I would like to put that question to Nadia and see if she has any comments.

Ms Mattiazo —I have some figures from the Centre for Eye Research Australia which might help the committee in relation to projected vision loss in the future. As we probably already know, over the last century the life expectancy of Australians has increased by nearly 40 years. In the next 20 years the proportion of older people over the age of 65 will double, and the amount of vision impairment and blindness will increase threefold with each decade of age. I guess by the time you are 95, if you are lucky enough or unlucky enough to get there, whatever the case may be, the chances are you will probably be blind. I reiterate that it will be an increasing issue. You will have a lot more people who will need some assistance or will need to have a different way of casting their vote than the standard print ballot paper.

Senator MASON —Thank you very much. That does help the committee. We did need to know that. I have one final question and it is a specific one: I listened with interest about how the technology available in the ACT would assist vision impaired people to vote, but you were really talking about the House of Representatives. I am a senator; so how would they go about voting in the Senate? If I can throw a real spanner in the works, how would they go with respect to voting below the line?

Ms Mattiazo —I would ask for extra time, probably. I actually would enjoy it; I would find it an excellent opportunity to be able to vote below the line. I have to say—and I will admit this freely because I guess there is parliamentary privilege—that there are times when I actually have not voted simply because I have not had somebody to assist me or I have received a postal vote in the mail and I have not been able to read it because it is in print and I cannot read standard print, and I have not got around to finding out when the due date is. All those things are advertised in the paper and they might be advertised on television, but that is assuming I am watching television at the appropriate time. So often I have just missed out through, I guess, my own fault, but also through not being able to access the material. I would find it an absolute pleasure to be able to have the choice to vote below the line and individually line up who I wanted.

Senator MASON —The technology would translate to it—

Ms Mattiazo —That would work, yes.

Senator MASON —But it could be an exercise that could take some time.

Ms Mattiazo —Yes, it might take some time, and I guess that is an issue. There may have to be some changes made. There may have to be more computers available in the particular electoral office if, for instance, it is taking too much time, or whatever. I do not know but, initially, I would vote below the line simply because I have never really had the opportunity to do that independently before. Therefore, I would find it a pleasure; maybe not the second time.

Senator MASON —It is something you only do once?

Ms Mattiazo —No, but it means that I have the ability to do that, as would you or anybody else in this room.

CHAIR —Thank you both for coming. Before we let you go, just so we have it on the record, we will take into evidence your document so it is considered with all the other papers and submissions as part of our deliberations. Is it the wish of the committee that the document handed to each member entitled ‘Blind Citizens Australia’ and presented by Mr Power be accepted into evidence and included as an exhibit? There being no objection, it is ordered. Thank you very much for attending. We will certainly be pursuing some of those issues and will make a note to raise them with the Australian Electoral Commission when we meet with them in a couple of weeks.

[2.45 pm]