More voting options as ACT faces ‘safe’ election

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“At a time when other governments internationally are making it harder for people to vote, Gordon Ramsay is setting some new standards in the opposite direction,” writes political columnist MICHAEL MOORE.

THE focus of the local community is slowly shifting from the coronavirus pandemic to the ACT election in October. 

Michael Moore.

Campaigning has started in earnest. Watch the announcements. There will be more money for pet projects, investment in health and education, better planning, jobs, better financial management, rates freeze and the list goes on. 

In the meantime, ACT Attorney-General, Gordon Ramsay, has introduced a second COVID-19 Emergency Response Legislation Amendment Bill 2020. The first was introduced in early April. The intention is to reassure the people of Canberra that his government has a sense of responsibility with regard to the October election. As part of the introduction he stated the Bill will “ensure the ACT 2020 election can go ahead in a COVID-safe way”.

The Bill is set to amend the Electoral Act to make it easier for people to vote without putting themselves at risk. Everyone hopes that we have seen the last of the cases and there will be no need. However, as is apparent from Beijing, it is possible that the Territory will suffer a “second wave” of the pandemic at the time of the election. It is best to have appropriate systems in place.

At a time when other governments internationally are making it harder for people to vote, Mr Ramsay is setting some new standards in the opposite direction. At the moment the amendments will apply just for this year’s October election. However, like many lessons coming from the Australian response to COVID-19, some of the actions might just be proved effective and later become embedded into our systems.

Where elections occur on weekdays in countries such as the US and the UK, lower-paid workers are at a disadvantage as they are unlikely to be able to take the time off work. Ramsay’s Bill moves well beyond the Australian advantage of having elections held on Saturdays and makes them even more accessible.

Following a recommendation of the ACT Electoral Commission, the Minister says his Bill will “support expanded eligibility for early voting and minimise the risk of COVID-19 transmission during the election period”. Early voting has been growing amongst the Canberra electorate as it provides convenience for people across the socio-economic spectrum. 

This legislation goes even further. Mr Ramsay claims: “The Bill also introduces the legislative framework for telephone voting so it can be an option to vote for people who are blind or vision-impaired and those with physical disabilities”. There will also be “limited overseas electronic voting”. The intention here is to avoid “international postal delays due to COVID-19.”

Keeping voters safe will be a priority for the Electoral Commission which has control over the administration of elections. Controls on queues of people will be important as will the distance between ballot boxes. Voting early in pre-polling booths has been a growing trend in Canberra, and so it is likely this option will appeal to even more people. It is to be hoped that the ACT Electoral Commission will provide a significant increase in the number of pre-polling booths across different regions within the ACT. 

The Attorney-General would have us believe that he is motivated to be “safe, fair and inclusive” in his “planning for the ACT Election”. Things can still go awry. It is worth remembering, as pointed out in this column a few weeks ago, Gordon Ramsay only needs the support of one other minister to postpone the election. 

Under Section 159 of the ACT Electoral Act 1992: “the Executive may, by written notice, make provision for extending the time for holding the election”. Just two ministers are required under the definition of “the executive” in ACT legislation.

It’s a shame that it takes a pandemic to provide motivation for ways to make voting easier. With elections “essential to our system of representative democracy”, it is critical that every opportunity is provided to make it easier for every eligible person to vote, independent of their status or the role they play in our society. 

 

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Michael Moore
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He has been a political columnist with "CityNews" since 2006.

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