If you live in Australia, its highly likely that you’re aware of the upcoming marriage equality postal vote – or plebiscite – or household survey – to be held later this year. For the benefit of international readers, Australia is currently in the midst of a same-sex marriage debate, and the best way to progress it has been a hotly debated topic both in an out of parliament for several years. it is now most likely the process will be completed via a postal survey.
If you read through the news items and social media posts on the topic, it’s certainly fair to say the whole process is somewhat controversial. Issues currently being discussed include whether it’s necessary to spend $AUD122 million on the process given its non-binding, whether the process is needed at all when polls consistently show two-thirds of Australians are in favour of marriage equality, and whether the use of a postal vote will unfairly skew the results in favour of older Australians given most people under the age of 25 have probably never physically put a letter of theirs in a post box.
While all these issues are important, the one that concerns me the most is that people with disabilities may not have the opportunity to have their say at all due to the unfortunate return to the use of inaccessible print media.
It is highly ironic that the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the government department given the responsibility for running the postal survey, felt that so many Australians now favour online as a means for completing government information requests that the last Census was held online for the first time. While the census didn’t exactly go according to plan due to crashes and alleged cyberattacks, it did highlight that completing such requests online is the preferred method for both government and the general public. Furthermore, many core government services including Centrelink, Medicare and the Australian Tax Office now put a heavy focus on accessing information online through the MyGov portal, again putting forward the argument that interacting with government services online is the best way to go.
So why then do we continue to see a return to archaic forms of voting such as postal votes that focus on the use of paper? Even during general elections, the emphasis is still on confirming your registration in a printed book and filling out a ballot form on paper. It seems that the reason for this is a combination of legislative restrictions and tradition. While I appreciate that the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ model may hold up for some, my argument here is that the system is broken for people with disabilities, and we have the technology to fix it, so it’s about time that we did.
With that in mind, here are my top five reasons for why it is essential that people with disabilities are given the opportunity to vote online.
The most significant reason why all voting opportunities should go online is due to accessibility. The technical issues in the last Australian Census overshadowed the fantastic reality that for the first time, people with disabilities were able to independently participate in the completion of the Census form using the assistive technology of their choice. The website was largely compliant to the WCAG 2.0 standard meaning it worked well for most people with disabilities. As such, barriers relating to the printed version of the Census were no longer an issue which included the print being too small for people with low vision, completely inaccessible questions to people who were blind, and difficult-to-read questions for people that had cognitive disabilities. The Census demonstrated that it is possible to have an accessible online portal that can gather information on a national scale, so there’s not much of a technical argument that a similar process could not be used for voting.
2. Improves accuracy and security
As a legally blind person, it is an uncomfortable reality that the easiest way for me to vote will be to ask someone I trust to help me fill out the form. While I’m fortunate to have a number of people around me that are likely to respect my wishes, there’s no guarantee that this will be the case and I have no way to check if the form is filled out correctly. With the right security checks, an online voting system could ensure that I am who I say I am and that my vote is as I intended. This is already the case with sensitive government information relating to payments, health and tax so there’s no reason why such checks can’t be carried out in a voting context. The process could even be connected to the secure MyGov account as a way of crossing my name off the electoral roll.
3. Easier to complete
In the last Federal election, I was surprised when I received the Senate ballot paper as it seemed to be as long as an unravelled toilet roll and printed in micro-font. Compare the process of filling this out with an online system whereby you can make the text as large as you need it to be in the colours most comfortable for your eyes, or even have it read out to you with an input method of your choice. Many people with disabilities already have their home computer, smartphone or tablet optimised for their needs so completing the voting process through this method is not only accessible but much easier.
Furthermore, providing the ability to complete a voting process online removes the need to travel to a polling place, a task often challenging for people with disabilities who may not be able to drive or are unfamiliar with a polling location.
4. Removes the need for specialist solutions
In response to the postal survey backlash from organisations such as Blind Citizens Australia and Media Access Australia, the ABS have now agreed that there will be some form of telephone system for people who are blind to complete the marriage equality survey. While this is great news, there are few details at this time about how the process will work and ultimately it seems like a backwards step whereby one government department announces a postal survey followed by another government department scrambling to figure out how to make it work for people who are blind. Online voting removes the need to create yet another process just for people with disabilities and streamlines the process for everyone.
If the four arguments above haven’t convinced you that online voting is the way to go, I’m hoping that the significantly reduced cost that online voting brings will be a good motivator in changing your opinion. Returning to the Census again, a factor in it going online was so the ABS didn’t have to spend so much money on paper, or staff to distribute and collect it. If the process moves online then it becomes cheaper. It also removes the cost of specialist solutions and has the added bonus of making it much easier to tally the votes at the end as its already stored electronically.
It’s my opinion that the right to vote in any country is a privilege and something that I take seriously as part of a citizen of this country. While issues and elections will come and go, the fundamental right to independently participate in them is absolutely critical. It’s my hope that the next time the government requests my opinion on an issue I’m able to provide it without the help of a third party.