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Mundell, Meg --- "Giving voice to the voiceless: Improving access to the vote for people experiencing homelessness" [2003] AltLawJl 84; (2003) 28(6) Alternative Law Journal 269

Giving voice to the voiceless
Improving access to the vote for people experiencing homelessness

Meg Mundell[*]

Hope on the horizon for disenfranchised homeless citizens.

What do we mean by 'democracy'? It depends who you are talking to. Being an optimistic fellow, Gandhi described it as a system that 'gives the weak the same chance as the strong'. A more cynical Benjamin Franklin defined democracy quite differently, as 'two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch'.

While it is not a perfect system, we like to think Gandhi's version of democracy is closer to the truth: that in Australia it means everyone has the chance to have a say in how their country is governed, and by whom.[1]

For most people, the act of voting does not bestow any real sense of personal empowerment: dropping a paper into a ballot box is unlikely to cause a rush of blood to the head. Voting is a civil right, the value of which may seem largely formal. But at a symbolic or ritual level, it speaks volumes: no matter what their personal circumstances, on that single day voters know they share the same power and relevance as their fellow citizens. If that power is denied to them, the implications are disturbing.

Before the last federal election, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) ran a TV campaign to encourage people to enrol and vote. The voiceover said: 'On election day every voice will be heard, and every vote will count'. But the advertisement did not acknowledge that a significant group in our society cannot fully participate in democracy: people experiencing homelessness. In effect, they lack a political voice.

Homelessness as a barrier to participation in democracy

We do not have any solid figures on what percentage of Australia's homeless population is registered to vote. It has never been investigated. But the barriers that stand between them and the ballot box suggest the numbers are very low. Hanover Welfare Services estimates that approximately one-third of homeless people are not registered to vote.[2] The Australian Federation of Homeless Organisations {AFHO) estimates that more than 90% of homeless people are not registered to vote.[3]

Taking into account that 88,000 homeless Australians are of voting age, the Public Interest Law Clearing House {PILCH) has used the above figures to estimate the number of homeless people who may have been eligible to vote in the last federal election, but did not do so, as ranging from 29,000 to 80,000.

The most obvious barrier is the lack of a permanent address. You cannot write 'third alleyway on the left', or 'no fixed abode', or 'youth refuge tonight, no idea tomorrow night' in the address section of your enrolment form. Nor will your details be updated on the electoral roll if you keep moving from one form of temporary accommodation to another.

Secondly, homeless voters have never been a target group for the AEC. There has been a huge push to get more young people, and more rural people, onto the roll -that is, those who are in secure housing.

The AEC even has special 'remote mobile polling' teams to visit isolated communities, and recently launched an extensive four-year study aimed at increasing enrolment rates among young people - the AEC describes it as 'a major investment in Australia's future'.[4]

But no effort has ever been made to make the vote more accessible for people experiencing homelessness.

Another barrier is that someone who enrols but does not vote can be fined (as indeed can someone who fails to enrol). If they do not receive the fine because they have no letterbox or have moved repeatedly, and if they do not write to the AEC giving a 'valid reason for failing to vote' -and there are no clear, public guidelines on what constitutes a 'valid reason'-they can be fined $50 plus court costs. If they do not eventually pay this fine, they could even end up serving a few days in jail.

For people whose lives have been turned upside down by homelessness, the threat of that fine is a real disincentive to enrolling. Someone experiencing the turmoil, instability and stress of being homeless cannot predict what their situation will be on polling day. They may well be in crisis and have other, much more urgent priorities.

Attitudes to voting

Some people experiencing homelessness say voting is a pointless exercise; others are keen to participate. Attitudes vary, just as they do in the general population.

It is possible that, as a group, people who have experienced homelessness may show a higher than average degree of disillusionment with the political system. Prior to the last federal election, Melbourne's Hanover Welfare services ran a study asking their clients about voting. Seventy-eight per cent felt politicians have little or no understanding of their predicament. Two-thirds felt politicians do not care about people in their situation. Close to half felt the outcome of the election would make little or no difference to their circumstances. More than one quarter were definitely not enrolled, and another 13% did not know whether they were enrolled. With the federal election less than a week away, 61% were intending to vote, 19% were intending not to vote, and 20% were unsure.[5]

But the larger point is that those who do wish to exercise their democratic rights must be able to do so. A staff member at the Australian Bureau of Statistics put it frankly: 'If your name is not on the electoral roll then effectively, as far as the system goes, you don't really exist'. Some people experiencing homelessness might wish to keep their engagement with 'the system' to a minimum, and are not interested in enrolling or voting. But the larger point is that those who do wish to exercise their democratic rights must be able to do so.

The author spoke to a young man called Michael Sutherland, who is currently working as a Big Issue vendor. The Big Issue is a news and current affairs magazine with a social justice focus. It is sold on the streets by homeless or unemployed vendors who keep half of the cover price as direct income. Michael is 19 and now has his own place after living on the streets for a year. He voted in the last federal election. He said he thinks it is important for people experiencing homelessness to be able to vote if they want to, and that it is unfair to fine them if they enrol but do not make it to the ballot box: 'People in that situation need support,' he said, 'not more hassles'.

Michael had this to say on the subject of participation: 'Some people don't want to vote because they're sick of bullshit processes, they don't trust politicians, or they just don't care because they're caught up in drugs. I vote because I want to help clean up the country, and I want a fair government.' The policies that would win Michael's vote include cheaper public transport, lower fuel prices, solutions to unemployment, boosting the levels of income support payments and the abolition of work for the dole. 'People should be paid properly to do that work, so they gain more skills, they can live better and start to get a good career happening', he said.

What is the significance of the 'homeless vote'?

There are plenty of people like Michael who want to vote but probably will not, because they have no fixed address. This is a significant issue: the homeless population of Australia totals more than an entire federal electorate. These are the people experiencing the hard-end consequences of government policies. To give them a political voice could have some very interesting effects, particularly in marginal seats. In the 1993 federal election, for example, 13 seats were won by fewer than 500 votes).

The last federal election was our most expensive ever: it cost $100 million to run. But none of that money was put towards making voting more accessible for the estimated 88,000 Australians who are homeless and of voting age.

We could speculate why no politician has ever bothered trying to capture the 'homeless vote': these prospective voters are unlikely to buy the argument that the country is in great shape; they can not make cash donations to the party offering them the most promising vision of the future. But if they had more of a political voice, who knows? Politicians might begin to consider their needs more closely.

So much for the bad news -now for some good news.

The itinerant electors provision: an avenue for change?

Just over two years ago, The Big Issue launched a 'Votes for the Homeless' campaign, aimed at improving access to the vote for people experiencing homelessness.

Prior to that, the homeless vote had never been examined on a national scale. When the AEC was asked why this was the case, their spokesperson sounded supportive. He admitted that the issue deserved attention, but because of the way our electoral system is structured, people experiencing homelessness tend to slip through the gaps.

Along with the Homeless Persons Legal Clinic (run by the Public Interest Law Clearing House, or PILCH, which has contributed some substantial expertise and resources to this issue) The Big Issue discovered a potential avenue to address the problem: s 96, a half-forgotten provision of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cth) titled 'Itinerant Electors'.

This provision is intended as a voting avenue for people with no fixed address. But hardly anyone knows about it: there are only around 4000 itinerant electors in Australia, and according to the AEC, '99 per cent of them are not homeless', but are fruit pickers and other seasonal workers. The itinerant electors avenue has never been explored or publicised as a voting option for people who are homeless.

One good thing about the itinerant electors provision is that if you register under it, but do not make it to the ballot box, you will not be fined. However, the provision would need to be tinkered with before it could function smoothly for people experiencing homelessness. As defined, an itinerant voter must have been staying at their current address for less than one month. Yet people experiencing homelessness often spend several months in temporary accommodation, so the time limit needs to be more flexible. The itinerant electors enrolment form also needs to be simplified to make it more user friendly.

Early in 2002, The Big Issue,the Homeless Persons Legal Clinic and the Council to Homeless Persons (CHP) made submissions to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, recommending that various measures be put in place to make it easier for homeless people to exercise their right to vote. Those recommendations focused on revamping the itinerant electors provision, working with homelessness services to help their clients to enrol and vote, increasing voter awareness and making the whole process more accessible and less punitive.[6]

The next election: homelessness on the agenda?

To the delight of the advocating bodies, the Committee took most of those suggestions on board. In its recent report on the last federal election, the committee recommended amendment of the itinerant electors section to apply more clearly to homeless people, and to simplify the enrolment form.[7] The AEC has undertaken to target homeless people in its next public awareness campaign, to inform them on how they can vote under the provision. The three organisations pushing for change on this front (The Big Issue, PILCH and CHP) would also like to see the AEC setting up mobile polling booths in locations where there are high numbers of homeless people.

In 2000, after a five-year campaign headed by The Big Issue in the UK, voting laws were changed so that people experiencing homelessness could register by giving 'an address of local connection' - a park or drop-in centre where they spend time. In the UK prior to 2000, this group could not vote at all.[8] Anecdotally, following the introduction of this legislation, the uptake at the last British election was fairly low. But by recognising in law that homelessness does exist and that it creates barriers to participation in society, and by trying to address one of those barriers, the legislation is significant. It was welcomed by UK charities as a step forward for the rights of people experiencing homelessness.

UK research into 'missing voters' concluded that a significant proportion of them are young people, particularly those from ethnic minorities, as well as people who are homeless or transient (which includes the large Gypsy population in the UK).[9]

In Australia, the AEC is currently looking at how voting can be made more accessible for people experiencing homelessness, and says it plans to consult with the homelessness sector on this issue. It is important to ensure already stretched homelessness services are not lumped with extra work they are not resourced to do.

Concerns have also been raised over the proposed introduction of requirements for all voters to produce original forms of identity. If adopted, this measure would further disadvantage people who are in transient or unstable life situations and who do not have access to these documents - for example women fleeing domestic violence or people sleeping rough. As it stands the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has compromised, recommending that new enrollees or re-enrollees produce original documentary proof of identity or letters from two people currently on the electoral roll confirming their identity.[10] Needless to say, if adopted and applied to itinerant enrolments, these criteria will prevent many homeless people from being able to vote.

For young people, the question of access to the vote is particularly significant. When homelessness is part of a person's early experiences, a sense of powerlessness and disconnection from society can become very entrenched. Many young people already feel politics has nothing to do with their own lives and circumstances, and don't see voting as worthwhile or relevant.

Making the voting process less onerous for people experiencing homelessness is all very well. Legislative change is all very well. But unless those people feel that voting is actually worthwhile, unless politicians begin to consider and communicate with them, there is unlikely to be a stampede on the polling booths.

Putting the future of the powerful people who run our country more firmly into the hands of those who are most marginalised is a small but significant step towards greater equality -in theory, at least. How it works in practice remains to be seen: whether, as Gandhi might have envisaged, there is a shift in the balance of power between the 'weak' and the 'strong' - or whether, as Benjamin Franklin suspected, the lamb still ends up as lunch.

The AEC has recruited a public relations agency to run an awareness campaign around this issue; that agency will join the AEC to discuss with homeless agencies the best strategies for helping their clients enrol and vote.

One positive spin-off is that this should generate some publicity and put homelessness on the public agenda. This will be an opportunity for those of us working in this area to remind the media, the government and wider society that while these changes should be welcomed as a step forward for the rights of people experiencing homelessness, when someone is in the situation where their life has been turned upside down and all their energy goes towards day-to-day survival, exercising democratic rights is probably the last thing on their mind For having a home, a job, and a sense that you are valued by the society you live in is where the real power lies.

[*] Meg Mundell is a Youth Policy Officer with the Council to Homeless Persons and former deputy editor of The Big Issue Australia, where she was also director of the magazines 'Votes for the Homeless' campaign. She also works as a freelance journalist and is a fellow of OzProspect.

© 2003 Meg Mundell (text)

© 2003 John Lynch (cartoon)

[1] Australian citizens are legally entitled and indeed required to vote at federal elections, provided they are 18 or older, have not been convicted of treason, are not serving a prison term of more than five years and are 'capable of understanding the nature and significance of voting (which rules out some people suffering from mental illness): Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cth) s 93.

[2] Michael Horn, Social and Democratic Exclusion: Giving Voice to the Homeless, Hanover (November 2001).

[3] Australian Federation of Homeless Organisations, 'Proposals Threaten Voting Opportunities for Homeless and Young Australians' (Press Release, 27 June 2001) < <> >.

[4] AEC, 'World-Leading Youth Electoral Study Launched Today' (Press Release, 5 June 2003) < What/media_releases/2003/jun/ yes_national.htm> .

[5] Figures taken from Hanover Stats and Facts: Homelessness and the Federal Election, Hanover (November 2001). Sample size was 175 clients: 55% were female; 30%wereparents; 35% were aged 18 to 25; 38% were aged 26 to 40 years; the remaining 27% were over age 40.

[6] The Homeless Persons Legal Clinic (PILCH) has also lodged a substantial submission to the Victorian Government focusing on this issue with regard to state elections.

[7] Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM), Parliament of Australia, Report of the Inquiry into the Conduct of the 2001 Federal Election and Matters Related Thereto (June 2003) 92-93.

[8] As well as helping to enfranchise the homeless population of that country, the Representation of the People Act 2000 (UK) also gave voting rights to remand prisoners, squatters and certain patients of mental institutions. These groups can also now use postal voting.

[9] Research undertaken by Harry Barnes MP, quoted in Traveller Law Research Unit, Cardiff Law School, Voting Rights for the Homeless < < claws/tlru/Voting.pdt> >.

[10] JSCEM, above n 7, 48.

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