Federal government urged to extend voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds and prisoners

Submissions into 2022 election inquiry include calls for regulation of ‘electoral lies’ and stricter caps on political donations

The Albanese government is being urged to expand voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds and people in prison in submissions to an inquiry into the 2022 election.

The academic Prof George Williams has proposed voluntary voting for 16 and 17-year-olds, and regulating “electoral lies” to prevent “baseless claims” such as Donald Trump’s about unproven electoral fraud in the US.

In a separate submission to the joint standing committee on electoral matters, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service has called for “all restrictions on the right of incarcerated people serving sentences to vote” to be scrapped.

In July Guardian Australia revealed that, after the inquiry, Labor intends to legislate spending caps and truth in political advertising, as well as promote adherence to the one-vote one-value principle.

The ambitious suite of reforms, confirmed by the special minister of state, Don Farrell, comes on top of election commitments to lower the political donation disclosure threshold to $1,000 and introduce real-time disclosures.

The committee’s terms of reference include these measures, along with “encouraging increased electoral participation and lifting enfranchisement of First Nations People” and investigating voting rights for Australians abroad, permanent residents and New Zealand citizens in Australia.

Williams, a professor of constitutional law and the deputy vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales, called on the government to “remove the outdated disqualification of people of ‘unsound mind’ and [extend] the vote to Australians living overseas”.

“Consideration should also be given to extending the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds by way of a cautious, incremental path,” he said. “Initially, the vote should extend to this age group on a voluntary basis.”

The former opposition leader Bill Shorten promised before the 2016 election to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote, but Labor has not recommitted to the idea at subsequent polls.

Williams argued it was “notoriously difficult to get 18-year-olds to enrol and vote” as they were too busy moving to university or into employment, out of home, and forming new relationships.

“Joining the electoral roll can be low on their list of priorities.

“On the other hand, 16 and 17-year-olds tend to be in a more stable family environment, and still at school.”

Many 16 and 17-year-olds were “more passionate about the future of our nation and their democratic rights than other sections of the community”, he said.

Williams warned Australia’s laws allowed politicians to “lie with impunity in the hope of misleading voters to secure electoral advantage”.

He called for truth-in-political-advertising laws, backed by fines, with safeguards for free speech so the “new law cannot be weaponised during an election campaign by one party seeking court injunctions against its opponents”.

Williams called for stricter caps on political donations, limiting them to $5,000 or less.

He also called to “modernise” the disqualifications of parliamentarians under section 44 of the constitution, by giving parliament the power to allow dual citizens and public servants to run for office.

Australians serving a sentence of three years or longer are not entitled to enrol and vote.

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service submitted that the “restriction of voting rights for people in prison is a form of disenfranchisement which heavily affects already marginalised people” because of the over-incarceration of Aboriginal people.

“It has been estimated that 0.6% of Aboriginal people in Australia are disenfranchised by restrictions on voting from prison, compared to 0.075% of non-Aboriginal people.”

Crossbench MPs and senators have largely welcomed Labor’s signal it intends to tighten political donation and spending laws, but the reforms are likely to be opposed by the Coalition.

In July the federal director of the Liberal party, Andrew Hirst, said the party “supports the existing funding and financial disclosure regime, which has been in place under successive governments”.

“The Liberal party does not support changes to these arrangements that would unnecessarily add to the already considerable administrative and compliance burdens placed on political parties.”


Paul Karp

The GuardianTramp

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