Homelessness and Voting

By Heidi Pett | 04 Sep 13

This article is a part of our August focus on Homelessness in Australia – you can access more content from this issue here.

By Heidi Pett

Australians all have ostriches. That’s how I sang the national anthem as a child until a conversation with my father that began, “We don’t have an ostrich, and next door doesn’t have an ostrich, in fact not a single person I know has an ostrich”. Something else I used to know about all Australians is that we have the right to vote, and it’s compulsory to do so.

That is, unless you’re one of the roughly 100,000 Australians experiencing some form of homelessness every night, in which case there can be a large practical difference between having a right and being able to fully exercise that right, which as it turns out isn’t actually compulsory.

So how do you get your name on the electoral roll if you don’t have an address? Which electorate do you enrol in? For Australians experiencing homelessness there are innumerable barriers to exercising the right to vote, but as Jenny Clarke from Homelessness Australia notes, “To give them credit, in terms of the way that the rules are structured, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) are trying to make it as easy as possible.” You can enrol as an itinerant elector, and there are a number of ways for people with no fixed address to get on the electoral roll.

And yet, according to the 2009 Green Paper on electoral reform, anywhere between 33 and 90 per cent of eligible Australian voters who are homeless are not on the electoral roll. That’s a huge variation in figures, serving to illustrate the difficulty of quantifying and analysing a population whose lack of a fixed address makes them hard to find, both literally and within sets of data.

AEC spokesman Phil Diak notes that trying to assess the number of people who are on the electoral roll and homeless is difficult, “although some estimates have been made”. Following the close of the electoral roll for the upcoming election on August 8 2013, the AEC estimates that a total of 1.2 million people are missing across the Australian population:

When it comes to understanding who the 1.2 million might be … the younger you are the less likely you are to be on the roll and we estimate that there are about 400,000 people between the ages of 18-24 who aren’t on the roll. There is also certainly an underrepresentation of people who are experiencing homelessness in some form or another.

When asked about the barriers people experiencing homelessness come up against in the electoral process, Jenny Clarke from Homelessness Australia laughs and asks where she should start:

People are often dealing with a very large number of very pressing issues ranging from “Where do I sleep tonight?” to quite challenging, complex and persistent mental health difficulties, and for women and the kids they have with them often it’s escaping family violence. People often just have a lot more on their mind.

She explains that outreach programs in crisis accommodation services are necessary to ensure that people experiencing homelessness are educated about their options, including enrolment without a fixed address.

The AEC has used targeted programs to reach specific demographics in the past, including the ongoing Indigenous Electoral Participation Program, introduced in 2010. The AEC estimates that only 50 per cent of the Australian Aboriginal community is enrolled to vote, and that only half of those enrolled make it to a polling booth. Twenty field officers – mostly of Indigenous background – are working at locations around Australia to educate people about how the electoral system works and encourage Indigenous voters to enrol. While the AEC notes the difficulty of assessing the effectiveness of these programs due to the necessity of anonymity in electoral data, anecdotal evidence from key stakeholders suggests that field officers were successful in engaging communities.

To date, there are no initiatives of a similar size or scope for those experiencing homelessness, though Diak says there are pilot projects in operation:

There is not a national program in the same way but some of the AEC initiatives have approached that. In Perth the AEC has been making contact with three city homeless shelters for quite a period of time this year, conducting mobile polls at these centres to collect votes from people in those circumstances.

The rolls are now closed for this years’ election, but homelessness advocacy services around Australia recommend the implementation of similar programs.

The AEC has implemented one initiative that has been widely met with approval. Most Australians have to vote; not doing will result in a fine. That is, unless you’re experiencing homelessness and have chosen to enrol without a fixed address. Clarke explains that compulsory voting could have unintended consequences for those experiencing homelessness, “In the same way that sensible jurisdictions don’t make a criminal offence of things like begging, you just don’t need to add fines to the list of things to worry about.”

“There also needs to be some work done at the political level, not just at the electoral level,” Clarke explains. “Like a lot of people, I think people experiencing homelessness sometimes feel that the political system doesn’t have a lot to deliver to them. In the current electoral climate that’s understandable because we’re yet to hear from the major parties in terms of forward thinking homelessness services.”

Australians experiencing homelessness aren’t a large enough group of people for major parties to consider courting, she says.  “Even the indigenous vote isn’t worth chasing and that’s five times larger, it’s just a small enough group of people … they’re not politically significant.”

As it turns out, they could be. Sort of. It depends which electorate our population of itinerant voters are enrolled in. “It’s certainly not automatically where you currently spend the most time,” explains Diak, referring to the enrolment options for those with no fixed address. Clarke adds that “they just try to pin people down somewhere sensible, somewhere it appears that they more or less belong”, explaining that the AEC don’t exactly want every itinerant elector in Australia enrolling in a marginal seat somewhere in Western Sydney. She laughs.

Heidi Pett is Sydney-based journalist. She produces and co-hosts Backchat, FBi Radio’s politics show, makes literary features for All The Best and presents long form interview program Out of the Box, having given up her law degree in favour of telling stories.