A civil liberties group is warning that hundreds of Aboriginal West Australians will be prevented from voting in next year’s state election because of harsh voter restriction laws.
Civil Liberties Australia (CLA) has written to the Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan to express concern that disallowing prisoners serving sentences of one year or more from voting in next year’s state election unfairly disenfranchises Aboriginal voters.
“Voting is a fundamental human right in any modern democracy. It is recognised in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Australia has signed on to,” CLA vice president Rajan Venkataraman said.
“There is absolutely no evidence that voting restrictions deter anyone from committing crimes…there is no evidence that allowing prisoners to vote undermines the integrity of elections.”
Voter eligibility requirements in state and territory elections differ across the country.
Under current laws in Western Australia, prisoners can only vote in state elections if they are serving a sentence of less than one year.
Western Australia has the highest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate of all states and territories at 3,842 persons per 100,000, according to the most recent ABS statistics.
“We hear about so-called "voter suppression" in the United States where laws and regulations are passed to make it harder to vote for Native Americans, African-Americans and other minority groups,” Mr Venkataraman said.
“We imagine we have no such rules here in Australia. But when voter restrictions on prisoners affect Indigenous people 15 times more than non-Indigenous people, then voter suppression is exactly what it is.”
NSW has equally restrictive measures in place as WA, while South Australia and the ACT are the most lenient, allowing all prisoners to vote in elections.
WA Attorney General John Quigley this year acknowledged that institutionalised racism exists in the state’s justice system.
But in a statement provided to NITV News, WA Electoral Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson said the laws won’t be changed.
“Section 18 of the Electoral Act 1907 has referred to prisoners serving a sentence since the Act was enacted in 1907,” he said.
“There are no current plans to amend these laws.”
National Trauma Recovery and Suicide Prevention Director Megan Krakouer said currently one in 12 Aboriginal men are in prison in WA.
“Our people have been subjected to discriminatory practices since colonisation. It’s about time that governments stop denying our rights as First Nations people,” she said.
“Our people won’t be in prison forever…their voices are important. They need to be able to vote which government they want to represent them”.
Civil Liberties Australia said the laws can’t be changed in time for WA’s state election in March 2021, but is calling on both sides of politics to amend the legislation during the next term of parliament.
“In theory, all that is needed is a simple change to the state's Electoral Act to remove prisoners from the list of disqualified persons,” Mr Venkataraman said.