25 September 2023

EDITORIAL: Remote voters have been let down by Australian Electoral Commission

| Matt Nicholls
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The generic ad that was originally booked with Cape York Weekly by the Australian Electoral Commission.

Above is the advertisement that the Australian Electoral Commission thought was adequate enough to inform Cape York residents of pending visits by remote voting teams.

A black and white ad that asks you to visit a website to find out when you can vote in the upcoming referendum.

At the bottom, it clearly says Saturday 14 October as the date of the referendum.

But nowhere does it say that voting actually starts tomorrow (Tuesday) in some Cape York and Torres Strait locations.

For small communities, it will be the only chance to get to vote in person.

Cape York Weekly received this ad booking last week and it was fortunate that the artwork came on Thursday afternoon.

It allowed us to jump on the website in advance and find out what the AEC had planned for its remote polling booths for our communities.

But we nearly fell out of our chair when we discovered that voting starts today in Aurukun and Lakeland, and tomorrow in places like New Mapoon, Laura and some Torres Strait islands.

What notice have residents in those communities been given?

Virtually none.

And when we rang the Laura General Store on the weekend to find out if they knew about the AEC’s visit on Wednesday, they were surprised, thinking that the poster on their notice board was for enrolments, not for voting.

To make matters worse, the voting team will only be in the town for a three-hour period.

Surely that is a joke?

For starters, most citizens in Australia will get a full day to cast their vote on October 14, but those living in cities will actually get up to 10 days to vote through pre-polling.

But Laura? Three hours.

In the midst of school holidays, there are concerns that many remote voters will miss out on casting their ballot in the referendum.

We’re also in the middle of school holidays, which means that many families will be elsewhere when the AEC rolls into the communities this week.

The lack of local knowledge is staggering.

In the last 12 months, there has been a successful push to lift the Indigenous enrolment rate.

But what good is it being enrolled if you can’t actually vote?

Cape York Weekly put these concerns to the AEC on Friday.

Originally, we were told that the communities had been given notice of the upcoming visits.

The AEC said it had sent SMS messages to phone numbers it had on record, and had booked some targeted Facebook ads.

READ ALSO No notice given to vote: Remote voices to miss out

But it could not tell us how many people were directly informed about the pending visits.

On Monday, the AEC scrambled to book two full pages with all of the remote polling booths in Queensland.

The ad copy arrived just before we went to print and you can see it on Pages 12 and 13 of this week’s paper. We’ve also published the pages at the bottom of this online article.

Senator Nita Green also booked an ad after hearing about the AEC’s inaction, which can be found on Page 15 of this week’s paper.

For many residents, though, it could be too late. Many might not get a copy of the paper until later this week, or are simply out of town.

There is a sad irony about all of this, considering what we are voting for in the referendum.

The AEC can’t say that this is an isolated incident, either.

Last year, this masthead wrote an editorial slamming almost the exact same issues.

Many people missed out on the opportunity to vote in the 2022 federal election because the remote voting teams turned up in their community without any notice.

Remote polling booths are popping up across Cape York this week, although there has been little notice given by the Australian Electoral Commission.

And while some might say that we’re biased because we are benefactors of any paid advertising, you’re probably right.

However, we pride ourselves on keeping our communities informed with factual information and we also expect our local, state and federal governments to do the same.

Had the AEC not booked a last-minute advertisement for the remote polling booths, we would have published the times and dates for free.

We will also spread the message on social media because we want people to vote.

Not only is it compulsory in Australia, but the outcome will have serious ramifications in our backyard.

But what would have happened if we didn’t pick up the AEC’s bungle? What if we didn’t check the website to see that voting was actually starting this week in Cape York?

Hundreds of people may have missed out on the opportunity to vote Yes or No.

And hundreds still might.

While we like to think that everyone reads the paper or our website, we know that isn’t the case. And what about the parts of Queensland that don’t have a newspaper or an independent media outlet?

The Gulf region is one area considered a “news desert”.

Voters in places like Forsayth, Georgetown, Mount Surprise and Croydon will have to rely on the bush telegraph to find out when the AEC is rolling into town.

Luckily, many of them will submit postal votes because their mail service is more reliable than what we get in parts of Cape York.

A request was put in for an interview with Australian Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers, but it was not forthcoming.

Has he been informed?

Considering these issues have been brought up before, he should think about stepping down once the votes have been counted.

Let’s hope that the referendum isn’t decided by a slim margin in either the national count or the Queensland count.

Every vote counts, but it seems like city votes count for a bit more if you are the AEC.

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