With one week of the campaign down, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott each have a month left in which to convince voters that they have the stronger hand to play on the economy, refugees, education and climate change.
Yet neither have emphasised a crucial feature of the election: enrolling to vote. The electoral roll closes one week after the writs are issued, meaning that in order to vote in the 2013 Federal Election, eligible voters must have submitted their enrolment form to the AEC by Monday, 12 August.
At last count, 1.4 million eligible Australians are not enrolled to vote. Young Australians are disproportionately represented in this group: over a third of those not enrolled are aged between 18 and 25. Among 18-19 years olds it is estimated that 43 per cent are not enrolled, and in some electorates (including, for example, the marginal seat of Melbourne) non-enrolment of under-25 year olds may be as high as 80 per cent.
Kevin Rudd recently asked young people to “come back”, an overdue acknowledgement that young people are critical to the regeneration and progress of political movements. Rudd must be aware that an injection of youthful vitality and energetic commitment to the movement may be one of the only ways to revive the political system and retrieve it from the quagmire of partisanship in which it is mired. Yet he failed to translate his clumsy invitation to re-engage into a basic call to action: enrol to vote.
The over-representation of young people among the non-enrolled is not just a matter of disillusionment with the major parties, with cheap political point-scoring and with the toxic vitriol that has characterised at least the last three years of federal politics. There are real, systemic obstacles that prevent young people from enrolling, or result in them being removed from the electoral roll.
For example, many young people are not aware that it is necessary to enrol to vote. Some think they will be automatically enrolled once they turn 18. This belief is not unreasonable, especially given both NSW and Victoria have introduced forms of automatic state enrolment. The AEC introduced direct enrolment in December 2012, an extremely important development, but the roll-out of the system over seven months has not come anywhere close to addressing the massive number of non-enrolled voters in time for this year’s election.
Some young people have been removed from the roll without knowing it. Young people are more likely than other demographics to move house frequently, during tertiary study or to begin a new career, which means they may be incorrectly enrolled. The Continuous Roll Update effectively enabled people identified as being incorrectly enrolled to be automatically removed from the roll, whereas (prior to the introduction of direct enrolment) they were required to fill out an additional form to be re-enrolled at their new address.
Some are not aware that the rolls close earlier than the election date itself. Others do not know how to enrol – also not entirely surprising as until June this year, it was not possible to enrol online (despite GetUp winning a High Court case in 2010 that would have permitted the AEC to immediately implement a mechanism for online enrolment).
Broadly, all of this points to serious gaps in the education of our young people about civic participation, voting and enrolment. However, with only one week to go, there is not time to address the more global problems of civics education and the democratic deficit in Australia – at this point in time, every one of us must reach out as far and wide as we can to encourage young Australians to enrol in time to vote in the federal election.
Research shows that young people have effectively decided recent elections – ours is a vote worth courting. Yet we are also one of the groups most systematically disenfranchised and ignored in the political system, even at the most basic level of being able to cast our vote.
In 2013, when Australians elect the government that will be in power at the time we need to peak global carbon emissions, when the unbridled expansion of coal and gas across the nation is threatening our legacy to future generations, including the Great Barrier Reef – now, it is more important than ever that young people, future-focussed and in line to shoulder the burdens created by the generation currently in power, are represented at the ballot box. It is both our right and our responsibility to vote – and enrolling is an essential step to realising that task.
I was surprised at how strong my reaction was to photographs and footage of voters being turned away from polling booths attended well beyond their capacity in the 2010 UK election. The idea of not being able to vote, of being denied the first and fundamental right of democratic citizenship, frightened and enraged me.
I don’t want any young person to be turned away on election day because they didn’t do the paperwork, or get the memo about the close of rolls on 12 August. Even though this call to action is not on the lips of our politicians, as citizens of a democratic state, let it be on yours and mine this weekend.
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